Jim Clark: What to make of education savings accounts | SierraSun.com

Jim Clark: What to make of education savings accounts

Jim Clark
Special to the Bonanza

With all the huff and puff in the just completed 2015 session of the Nevada Legislature, there was only one big surprise: education savings account legislation.

When he first ran for governor in 2010 Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval laid out a detailed plan for public education reform.

Despite inheriting a Democratic assembly and senate from Gov. Gibbons, he actually got some important reforms approved in the 2011 and 2013 legislative sessions, but only bits and pieces of his overall plan.

Leading up to the 2014 election, Republicans were hopeful (at best) of recapturing the senate but entertained no thought of an assembly majority.

Then the "red wave" hit and Republicans recaptured not only the senate but picked up a net of 10 seats in the assembly to outnumber Democrats, 25 to 17.

In addition, the GOP captured all seven state Constitutional offices.

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Sandoval's reforms were going to cost money and we found out during his January 2015 state-of-the-state speech that he planned to ask the legislature for a tax increase.

During this session, the governor got nearly 100 percent of his education reforms passed into law on a bipartisan basis, mostly by offering potential opponents both a carrot and a stick.

If Democrats choked on his tax scholarship plan he offered more education spending to make the "medicine go down."

Education savings accounts were the stark exception. This measure passed on a party line basis with all Republicans voting for and all Democrats voting against.

Here's how it works: Any parent with a child enrolled in a Nevada public school for 100 consecutive days will have the option to pull the child out of that school and take the state's education funding with him/her.

For challenged students (English learners, special education and poverty students) the grant is 100 percent of the Nevada Plan per student allocation, or about $5,700 per year; all other students receive 90 percent of the allocation.

Parents can use that money for private school tuition, tutoring, computers, computer software, distance learning, class fees, textbooks, tutoring, advanced placement test training, or home schooling.

Democrats called the measure unconstitutional because parents could use funds for tuition at religious schools. They also complained that taking money from public schools would ruin public education.

Republicans countered that courts have held if parents receive the money and use it for religious school tuition, there is no constitutional problem because the state would not be directly giving money to religious institutions.

Moreover, Republicans said that public education would actually have more money per student because they still get all the federal and local funds they receive now.

Nevertheless, the teacher union fiercely opposes the measure. Democrat State Senator Joyce Woodhouse said: "This is a ploy by those who deplore public education and want to destroy it."

The facts favor the Republican position. Since vouchers were introduced in Milwaukee 25 years ago 42 states have enacted some form of school choice, yet only 6 percent of the total school population has taken advantage of it.

Nevada's education savings account law has received nationwide attention. The Wall Street Journal wrote: "Education savings accounts … harness the capacity of modern technology to deliver high-quality, tailored education to every child in the state."

US News & World Report said: "Nevada lawmakers … gave every public school parent the option to choose how and where their child is educated."

Although four other states — Arizona, Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee — have education savings account laws, their use is limited to parents of poverty and handicapped students.

Nevada's is unique it that it only requires students to be first enrolled in public school in order to take advantage of the measure.

Are hordes of parents going to pull their children from public schools? Probably not. Yet, the ability to custom tailor a child's education plan could make all the difference to kids who do not fit the "one size fits all" characteristic of government run education.

Jim Clark is president of Republican Advocates. He has served on the Nevada and Washoe County GOP Central Committees. He can be reached at tahoesbjc@aol.com.