This week our news team is taking an in depth look at the state's new Education Savings Account program in a five-part series called Nevada's Gamble on School Choice. To kick things off, our reporter Julia Ritchey tells us how private school parents are at arms over one of the most controversial elements of the law: the so-called 100-days rule.
Cheri Wulforst has a daughter in fourth grade and a son in first. They both attended private school in Reno, but that all changed this school year after she found out about the state's new voucher-like program that subsidizes private school tuition.
"We did not make the decision to try to qualify until 14 days ago, so literally right before school started," she says.
To qualify for the money, roughly $5,000 per child, Wulforst had to first enroll her children back into public school for 100 days. This 100-days rule, a statutory requirement, has many private school parents upset.
Wulforst says her daughter was still at camp in New Hampshire and didn't know she'd be attending a different school until the plane ride home. The transition, she says, has not been easy.
"When I asked my daughter how school was going, she said through tears, 'Mommy, it just doesn't feel like home,'" says Wulforst. "And it's very hard for us to ask a nine-year-old to make this choice."
Wulforst was one of three dozen private and homeschooling advocates who gave emotional testimony at a recent state hearing, criticizing the rule as discriminatory and unfair toward private school parents.
She says just because she sends her kids to private school doesn’t mean she and her husband can easily afford it.
"We are not wealthy; we both drive old cars," she says. "I have a 1999 Toyota, he drives an '02 Subaru. When we drop our kids off at school there's definitely a procession of nicer vehicles. But like so many have said, it was a sacrifice that we made. "
State Senator Scott Hammond, who co-authored the bill, says the number of parents who are protesting the rule are a small but vocal minority.
"They're the ones saying, 'How come we weren't included in this'? And the answer is quite simple, when they withdrew their child from the public education system, we no longer included them in the budget," he says.
He says including private school children in the program would've created a $200 million hole in the budget. Hammond doesn't see this being the case forever...
"But right now the immediate need is on students who don't have access to another alternative," he says.
To make matters more confusing, the state wrote a small loophole into the rule. Basically, any private school child who enrolls in one regular public or charter school class — like P.E. or another elective — can qualify for the money.
But many private school parents say this loophole is nearly impossible to fulfill because most schools are already overcrowded or don’t offer these one-off classes.
"Yeah, there is confusion without question because we're hearing, 'This is the answer, now this is the answer..."
That's Kristopher Dahir, director of enrollment at Excel Christian School in Sparks. He’s watched as all the rule changes have left many parents scrambling.
"It's kind of hard because we're hearing all of our stuff from the newspaper, which isn't bad, but the newspaper doesn't always get it exactly," he says. "So we keep having to go back to the treasurer's office to make sure what's being said is accurate."
His school has an enrollment of about 270 students. About 25 students withdrew over the summer in order to fulfill the 100-days rule.
Between the increased interest from public school parents and the anticipated return of a few private school kids, he says the school could easily surpass 300 in enrollment this year.
"I do anticipate having a full school within the next two years," he says. "We also anticipate building again, which we were going to do anyway."
Some parents worry if private schools will be able to handle the influx of students come April, when the first checks are cut.
Wulforst says she's not sure if she'll pull her kids out in the spring or wait until the school year is finished. She just wants to make the best choice she can for her kids.
"The intention for our family is to return to the school where they're comfortable — where my daughter feels at home," she says.
Like other private school parents, she will be counting down the days until they qualify for the new program — 84* to be exact.
NOTE: This is part one of our five-part series: Nevada’s Gamble On School Choice. Check back to KUNR.org this week to hear our in depth conversation with State Treasurer Dan Schwartz who's in charge of implementing the Education Savings Account program.
*This story has been corrected to reflect that only 16 school days have passed, not 22 as originally stated. The 100-day rule counts school days, not calendar days.