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Parents can’t curb ESA enthusiasm

The response from parents to my previous two columns on Nevada’s groundbreaking Education Savings Accounts was overwhelming: Tell me more!

How hungry are parents for information on the country’s strongest school choice law? Imagine a line of construction workers and lumberjacks at an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast, and you’re getting close.

For those new to the discussion, Gov. Brian Sandoval this month signed into law nearly universal ESAs, which will allow parents to withdraw their children from public school and gain control of more than $5,000 in state funding that supported their kids’ enrollment. That money can be spent on private school tuition, tutoring, technology and other special instruction or therapies — any legitimate expense that supports the education program of a family’s choice.

Nevada is the fifth state to enact ESAs, but ours is the broadest by far. ESAs in other states are means tested or available only to disabled students or those enrolled in low-performing schools. Nevada’s ESAs will be available to all students enrolled in public schools, regardless of household income or school performance.

“I always wondered which we would see first: universal school choice or the personal jet pack,” said Sen. Scott Hammond, R-Las Vegas, a former Clark County School District teacher turned charter school assistant principal who sponsored the legislation. “Now we have our answer.”

ESAs won’t be available until Jan. 1, and the regulations, application process and operational details are being sorted out by the state. But parents interested in taking advantage of the ESAs next year will need to start planning this year. And they’ll need good information to do that. Here are some answers to most common questions I’ve received from parents so far.

Q: Where do I go for information on ESAs?

A: Don’t bother contacting your child’s teacher, principal or school district. And the Nevada Department of Education won’t have information, either. ESAs will be administered by the state treasurer’s office. On Monday, Treasurer Dan Schwartz will activate a phone number and email address for ESA queries. Interested parents can call 702-486-5101 or email questions to NevadaSchoolChoice@NevadaTreasurer.gov. Another great resource is Karen Gray, the citizen engagement coordinator for the Nevada Policy Research Institute, the think tank that championed ESAs throughout the 2015 Legislature. Gray is already meeting with parents to help them understand their options and research alternatives to traditional public schools. Her email address is kg@npri.org.

Q: If my child currently attends a private school, can I open an ESA on Jan. 1?

A: Probably not. Only students who were enrolled in public school for at least 100 school days in 2015 will be eligible for ESAs when they go online Jan. 1. Hammond said expanding ESA eligibility to students already enrolled in private school would have blown a huge hole in the state’s budget — the equivalent of adding some 20,000 new students to public school enrollment. The state simply couldn’t afford that.

Q: If my child attends a charter school, can I open an ESA?

A: Yes. Charter schools are public schools that receive funding from the state’s Distributive School Account. That funding would shift from your child’s charter school to your ESA.

Q: If I home-school my child, can I open an ESA?

A: No. Home-schooled children are not eligible for ESAs. As with students currently enrolled in private school, they’ll have to enroll in a public school for 100 days to gain ESA eligibility.

Q: When does the 100-day enrollment clock start for ESA eligibility?

A: This is the trickiest and most important question for anyone considering an ESA. Schwartz’s office has formed an implementation team to write ESA regulations and procedures, a process that will take months. However, Hammond said the intent of the legislation was to make students enrolled in public school for the just-concluded 2014-15 school year eligible for ESAs so they can enroll in private school this August and not have to switch schools mid-year. He said any student enrolled in public school for 100 school days in calendar year 2015 should be eligible. By my count, the Clark County School District nine-month calendar had precisely 100 school days between Jan. 1 and June 4, the end of the school year (students on year-round calendars might have more days). Home-schooled and private school students who switch to a public school in August to gain ESA eligibility would have to stay enrolled past the winter break and into January 2016 to gain eligibility.

Next week: More answers to your ESA questions.

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s senior editorial writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Glenn_CookNV.

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