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Hundreds Rally As School Choice Gains in Popularity

Paul Boger

Education Savings Accounts have become an incredibly controversial topic in Nevada since lawmakers approved the voucher program in 2015. So far between 8,000 and 9,000 students have signed-up for the program despite a Nevada Supreme Court decision striking down the state's previous attempts to fund the ESA’s.

Jumping, clapping and waving bright yellow scarves on the steps of the amphitheater at the State Capitol in Carson City, hundreds of children danced to the music of Justin Timberlake as part of a rally in support of Nation School Choice Week.

Wednesday's rally was one of thousands nationwide. Held every January, it promotes the expansion of more educational options for children, whether it's charter schools, vouchers or home schooling.

Pat Hickey is a former Assemblyman from Washoe County and now oversees the Charter School Association of Nevada. He says all parents deserve options.

"It shouldn't just be that you can go to school where your neighborhood is. For example, if you live next to a Walmart, should that mean you only can shop at Walmart? How about if you want to go to Target or Macy's or Dillard's? Or maybe you get a discount coupon to go to Neiman Marcus like the ESA's are? Shouldn't you have that freedom and opportunity here in America? I think so."

School choice has been growing in popularity in recent years. According to the state Department of Education, more than 47,000 children -- or roughly one-in-ten -- attend charter school in Nevada. And with promises to put nearly $60 million into the state's education savings accounts, many parents have begun looking into the program.

Laquenta Luster of Reno sends her daughter to SNACS - Sierra Nevada Acadmey Charter School - in Reno. She says her daughter has flourished since enrolling.

Credit Paul Boger
Laquenta Luster with her daughter at the Nevada School Choice Rally.

"She came home this semester with a 3.5. We've never seen that as long as she's been in school. So this has been an amazing journey for us."

But despite her daughter's success, Luster says there is still some interest in the voucher program.

"Actually, I did sign her up for one a couple of years ago and I didn't think it was important, but now that we know it's important we need it. It can take her anywhere she wants to go [and] I think it's a good idea to have one for every family."

But not everyone is convinced that the plan will bolster the public education system. Reuben Murillo is with the Nevada State Education Association - the state's largest teacher union. He says vouchers will only hurt traditional public schools.

"Any time you divert money away from public schools you end up leaving gaping holes in the budget, in schools resources. It could increase class size [and] diminish supplies necessary for those students who are not able to go to a private school."

Other organizations have also voiced concern over ESAs. After Governor Brian Sandoval announced his intent to fund the savings accounts the upcoming legislative session, the ACLU of Nevada wrote in a statement that the money associated with the ESA's could possibly be sent to private schools that would discriminate on the basis of religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability. Last year, the state Supreme Court agreed taxpayer money could not be used to send children to religious schools and struck down the state's funding mechanism.

But speaking to supporters at the rally Wednesday, Republican Senator Ben Kieckhefer of Reno says lawmakers should work to fully support the program.

"It is my commitment to walk out of that building with universal school choice funded with the promises met that we made to families of this state, and that we achieve that objective so that all parents and families can make the choices that are best for their families."

However, Democrats, who regained control of the legislature last November, say they will fight efforts to fund the savings accounts. Aaron Ford of Las Vegas is the Senate Majority Leader.

"It is not fair to Nevada families to divert our limited resources toward private schools. Any amount of money directed toward a voucher program will automatically result in less money being made to public schools. This session legislative Democrats will be focused on ensuring an adequately and equitably funded public school system."

With enrollment rates in charter schools and the education savings accounts continuing to grow, the fight over school choice is far from over.


Paul Boger is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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