Great Minds Assemble to Promote ESA Success for Nevada Students

A couple weeks ago I giddily danced to the national news of this year’s growing momentum behind educational choice. Foremost among recent developments is Nevada’s breakthrough adoption of a nearly universal ESA program in Nevada.

This snippet from Leslie Hiner’s new column in The Hill puts the new Education Savings Account in perspective:

During the 2014-15 school, more than 377,000 pupils utilized vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and ESAs. With recent action in the states, that number will grow exponentially. In Nevada alone, over 453,000 students will be eligible to use an ESA in 2016.

Wow! Nevertheless, as we’ve alluded to here many times before, the hard work is only beginning. Passing the legislation may be able to set many students and families free to chart their own educational future, but it doesn’t guarantee across-the-board success. And the details matter. A lot.

Several reform-minded education experts have weighed in with their helpful thoughts. Policymakers and K-12 leaders would be wise to pay heed, starting with Lindsey Burke’s weekend column in the Las Vegas Review-Herald. She points out several very good ideas to make the program work best for its customers:

  1. The state office overseeing the program should create a public and transparent “white list” of approved expenditures for their Education Debit Cards
  2. Officials also should make it possible for families to conduct as much of their ESA business as possible online
  3. To round out the “customer-friendly experience,” families should have access to a consistent staff program liaison for more detailed questions and concerns

As one of four online Fordham panelists to take on the question of what the Silver State has to get right to make ESAs a success for taxpayers, Nevada Succeeds policy director Seth Rau makes some similar points. He also raises what might be classified as the million-dollar question:

My biggest question is whether $5,000 is enough to create educational value for students who aren’t languishing in poverty. Are parents willing to pair some of their own funds with the ESA to remove their kids from the public school system? I do not know the answer at scale, but it will be an important experiment for the future of American education.

For his part, Matt Ladner writes that “state authorities must be deeply involved in program oversight, but they also need to develop new methods to get it right.” Pointing to next-door Arizona’s pioneer example, he is hopeful Nevada can build on a balanced accountability framework in the legislation to provide a customized learning experience for participating students while clearly reporting outcomes to the state.

Fellow panelist and Arizona resident Jonathan Butcher explains how state regulations can prevent fraudulent abuse of ESAs in Nevada without creating an excessive, burdensome footprint. Also, something about cane toads (pretty cool, huh?).

Finally, charter school network founder Michael Goldstein takes a different tack, arguing that Nevadans need a “harbormaster” figure who can market the state as place to foster a diverse supply of quality education providers. It remains to be seen how effectively used the money Nevada lawmakers set aside for this will be. But if done right, it can expand access to needed learning options.

So, Nevada, time to roll up those sleeves and “git ‘er done.” We don’t want to gamble away the chance to help thousands of kids chart the path to success.