A Las Vegas judge dismissed the case against the nation’s first near-universal education savings account (ESA) program, which allows parents to control most or all of the funds the state spends on their child to create a personalized educational experience. This is a win for students and parents who want more control over their educational decisions.
The case centered around the state’s Blaine Amendment, a century-old relic which prohibits public funds from flowing to “sectarian purpose[s],” written to restrain the growth of Catholic schools in 1877 when the public schools were openly Protestant and anti-Catholic sentiment was popular. With the dismissal of this case, close to 6,000 Nevada students who signed up for the program and their families are one step closer to educational choice. Although the program is still under injunction due to a separate lawsuit about state funding, the dismissal should give the people of Nevada hope. The decision comes at a time when ESAs are poised to revolutionize the American education system, with Nevada leading the way as the vanguard of unbundled, customized, and parent-directed education in the 21st century.
If 2011 was dubbed the “Year of School Choice” by the Wall Street Journal, the coming years are likely to be the years of education savings accounts. Five states currently have ESA programs on the books: Nevada, Arizona, Florida, Tennessee, and Mississippi. In addition, more than a dozen states across the country, from Oregon to Oklahoma and Minnesota to Missouri, considered ESA bills this legislative session, with more expected in 2017.
Unlike traditional school choice programs, like vouchers, ESAs allow parents to combine the educational offerings from multiple providers and create an education customized to the exact needs of their child, whether the instruction comes from public schools, private schools, tutors, educational therapists, curricula, or via innovative technology. The next few years will likely see parents and students combining the best of various options; a high schooler in 2018 might attend math class at a local public charter, but study English literature at home with his father, biology through access to specially-designed labs, and history with an online community college course.
Critics may wonder how parents will sort through the plethora of options available to them in such a system, but a new report from the American Legislative Exchange Council highlights three tools they will use to evaluate providers: peer reviews, branding, and expert consulting. In 2016, with the ubiquity of online product reviews about everything from books to restaurants, it should be no surprise that parents in Arizona, which houses the longest-running ESA program, have already created an Internet forum where they swap experiences and rate tutors and other education providers. Already-known education brands like KIPP and Catholic schools will be joined by new brands, created by entrepreneurs with innovative ideas, attracted by parents’ newfound ESA purchasing power. Expert guides, analogous to the U.S. World & News Report which ranks universities on recognized quality metrics, will help parents evaluate how educational opportunities stack up against objective measures of quality, such as nationally-normed test results or college preparatory expectations.
The ESA revolution is coming, and coming soon. In order to ensure parents have access to the broadest array of quality options, policymakers must be careful to create ESA programs large and broad enough to attract new education entrepreneurs to come compete for parents’ dollars. Nevada delivered as a national leader, taking the first brave step into organizing its education system around the truth that each child performs better in an educational environment designed around his particular strengths, weaknesses, and aspirations.
Nevada’s ESA program is not out of the legal woods yet, as the thousands of students who have already enrolled wait for litigation to play out over an injunction over the program’s specific funding mechanism. But yesterday’s decision represents an encouraging step, legitimizing the needs of Nevada families for a truly 21st-century education, and dismissing the objections of those invested an obsolete status quo that continues to fail American students.
Inez Feltscher is the director of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) Task Force on Education and Workforce Development. More information is available at www.alec.org.