On Tuesday night, Nevada governor Brian Sandoval signed into law the nation’s first universal school-choice program. That in and of itself is groundbreaking: The state has created an option open to every single public-school student. Even better, this option improves upon the traditional voucher model, coming in the form of an education savings account (ESA) that parents control and can use to fully customize their children’s education.
Yes, school choice has often advanced through the introduction of vouchers and charter schools — which remain some of the most important reforms for breaking up the government education monopoly. But vouchers were, to quote researcher Matthew Ladner, “the rotary telephones of our movement — an awesome technology that did one amazing thing.” States such as Nevada (and Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee) have implemented the iPhone of choice programs. They “still do that one thing well, but they also do a lot of other things,” Ladner notes.
As of next year, parents in Nevada can have 90 percent (100 percent for children with special needs and children from low-income families) of the funds that would have been spent on their child in their public school deposited into a restricted-use spending account. That amounts to between $5,100 and $5,700 annually, according to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. Those funds are deposited quarterly onto a debit card, which parents can use to pay for a variety of education-related services and products — things such as private-school tuition, online learning, special-education services and therapies, books, tutors, and dual-enrollment college courses. It’s an à la carte education, and the menu of options will be as hearty as the supply-side response — which, as it is whenever markets replace monopolies, is likely to be robust.
Notably, families can roll over unused funds from year to year, a feature that makes this approach particularly attractive. It is the only choice model to date that puts downward pressure on prices. Parents consider not only the quality of education service they receive, but the cost, since they can save unused funds for future education expenses.
Accountability is infused throughout the ESA option. Funding is distributed into the accounts quarterly, and parents provide receipts for expenditures to the state. In the event there is a misuse of funds, the subsequent quarter’s distribution can be withheld and used to rectify it. Students must also take a national norm-referenced test in math and reading, a light touch that doesn’t dictate students take a uniform state test.
So imagine now what the future of education could look like in Nevada. Instead of being assigned to brick-and-mortar schools based on their parents’ ZIP codes, students can instead have their state funds deposited into an ESA. Parents can then craft a learning plan that matches best to the unique learning styles and needs of their children.
Perhaps that means Johnny spends the morning at a private school, and then in the afternoon gets private instruction in algebra from a tutor who meets him at home. At night, Johnny takes a dual-enrollment college course online.
The future of education financing is here. And the future is about separating the financing of education from the delivery of services. ESAs don’t dismantle public financing of education; they just recognize that education, although publicly financed, doesn’t have to be delivered through government schools.
Nevada understands that, and understands it to such an extent that state policymakers and Governor Sandoval went all-in with a universal option. In other words, families in the Silver State have struck gold.
— Lindsey M. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation.