SOME PARENTS of students who attend private and parochial schools in Nevada are debating whether to pull their children out of their current schools and have them attend public schools for 100 days. It is not that they are dissatisfied; instead, the temporary switch would make the students eligible to return to the private schools with their costs underwritten by public tax dollars. That such an opportunity exists goes to the heart of what is wrong with Nevada’s new voucher program. By subsidizing families who do not need aid, the state wastes public money that would be better directed to low-income students in academically struggling schools.
Republicans who control both the legislature and the governor’s mansion in Nevada passed the unprecedented voucher program, which will allow all parents of public school students — no matter their income — to use state funding earmarked for their children to pay for a private education, including even home schooling. The money — about $5,000 annually per student — would be deposited into an education savings account that can be used for state-approved expenses, with unspent money allowed to roll over and be saved to pay for college tuition. The only requirement is enrollment for 100 consecutive days in a public school; some parents see even that as too onerous and are pushing for workarounds that would allow children in private and parochial schools to qualify.
The law is being challenged in court on grounds the state constitution bans use of public funds for sectarian purposes. Its supporters meanwhile hail it as the ultimate in school choice, allowing education funding to follow students to the schools that work best for them. We believe in school choice, and we have strongly supported the federally funded voucher program that helps poor, mostly minority children in the District attend private or parochial schools. But a universal voucher program that gives precious education funding (Nevada is among the nation’s worst when it comes to support for education) to middle- and high-income families who on their own would choose and can afford private education is neither sensible nor sustainable.
There is also the worry the program could worsen the existing gap between poor and well-off students. Low-income students will get a slightly higher subsidy, and a separate tax credit program provides additional resources, but it is unclear if that will be enough to help them get into competitive, high-quality private schools. If they do not, they may well be faced with attending under-resourced public schools or private schools with cut-rate tuition and quality. That is not much of a choice.
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