Sitting in her math class at Clark High School, Daniela Lopez longed to go to a private school. There was just one seemingly insurmountable problem. Her family couldn’t afford it.
Thanks to school choice, they didn’t have to.
While attending public school as a freshman and sophomore, Lopez didn’t find the environment conducive to learning.
“I had this math class, and there were about 45 kids in there,” she said. “Sometimes the kids would be very disruptive. Sometimes they would talk or listen to music.
“I wanted to learn, but I couldn’t really do it, because there were so many kids being disrespectful. The teacher didn’t really want to pay attention to us since people wouldn’t listen, and he would give up.”
Like thousands of other Clark County kids in working-class homes, Lopez assumed she was stuck.
“I grew up with poverty,” she said. “I’m not from the United States. I came over here (from Mexico) when I was five. It’s been difficult, especially when you have a single parent.”
Fortunately for Lopez, Gov. Brian Sandoval and legislative Republicans passed the Opportunity Scholarship program in 2015. It gives businesses a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for donations to scholarship-granting organizations. The organizations give private school scholarships to children whose families earn less than 300 percent of the federal poverty line. Scholarship amounts vary but can’t be more than $7,934 a year. For comparison, average school district funding in Nevada, not including capital costs or bond repayments, was more than $9,000 a pupil last school year.
“I wanted to move schools my sophomore year, because I was old enough to realize this is not what I want,” said Lopez, now 17.
Lopez had a cousin who went to Mountain View Christian School and told her about the Opportunity Scholarships. She applied, and her family was able to make the numbers work. High school tuition and fees at Mountain View are $9,450. Last school year, she attended MVCS as a junior and is now a senior.
“I could finally get the education I wanted,” she said. “Now that I’m here, they don’t let you fail. They’re here for you.”
Not only is she learning more, but Lopez’s grades have gone from a C+ average to A’s and B’s. Her social confidence and intellectual curiosity have grown as well.
“I definitely felt like I wasn’t as shy or nervous,” said Lopez. “At a public school, kids really don’t care, and they’ll make fun of you for a dumb question. Here I’m comfortable to ask any type of question.”
Next year, Lopez plans to head off to college — UNLV is under consideration — and pursue a degree in nursing, but she’s still personally invested in Opportunity Scholarships. Those scholarships help her 6-year-old sister also attend MVCS.
School choice matters, because Daniela Lopez matters. There’s no better time to remember that than during National School Choice Week, which concludes on Saturday. An estimated 6.7 million people will have attended one of more than 32,000 events celebrating school choice this week.
Those efforts are vital, because only a relative handful of students currently benefit from the Opportunity Scholarship program. Available tax credits are limited to $6 million a year, although that amount increases by 10 percent annually. Last year, lawmakers did approve a one-time increase of $20 million in credits.
“Children learn differently,” said Andrew Campanella, National School Choice Week president, while filming Nevada Politics Today. “When we can pair kids up with schools that best meet their needs, they’re more inspired, challenged, motivated and happy. They’ll go on to more successful and productive lives. That’s really the goal of education.”
It’s a goal that Lopez hopes lawmakers take to heart. Opportunity Scholarships “change the lives of many kids who are going through the same things I was,” said Lopez. “Their academics, their lives, their futures could be so much better. We really need it.”