Is Universal School Choice Leaving Low-Income Students Out?

Sep 3, 2015

Credit Alexa Ard

Although some in the state legislature are selling Nevada’s new education savings account program as a benefit for low-income students, many Washoe County families don't see it as a realistic option for them.

I wanted to see if parents and students at Reno's low-income public schools had heard of the ESA program, and what they thought of it. So I hit the streets just as school was letting out.

“Have you heard about the Education Savings Account program in Nevada?”

“No”

“No, sorry me no.”

“Have you heard about the Education Savings Account program?”

“Uh, no.”

That’s Helen, a senior at Earl Wooster High School>; Maria who has two kids at Veterans Memorial Elementary; and Wayne, whose daughter attends kindergarten at Roger Corbett Elementary. None of them had heard of the ESA program. But for Seth Rau, with the education nonprofit Nevada Succeeds, that's not a big surprise, considering where applications have been coming from so far.

"Up here in Washoe County, the applications are mostly coming from Spanish Springs and South Reno, the most affluent parts of this county," he says.

In addition to using the ESA payment for private school tuition, parents could apply it toward various other alternatives, like homeschooling or setting up a co-op.

"There's just a lot of information that needs to be parted on to people right now so that parents can make the best decisions.Some of these parents aren't even connected to the internet, and even if they are, it's still a really resource-poor environment right now."

Even if the state gets the word out, there are still several roadblocks, starting with cost. Private school tuition in Washoe County generally exceeds the $5700 payout. In fact, the only private schools covered by the ESA are religiously affiliated, and the six secular options would cost $3,000 to $14,000 extra a year. None are in or near a low-income neighborhood, which could be another obstacle.

At the McDonald’s on Plumb Lane, kids are hanging out after school while Wayne, the manager, watches over the place. When I ask him how he likes Roger Corbett, he starts out positive.

"I like her teacher," he says. "She's really good."

Still, Wayne's worried about what will happen next year and says if he could find a school that the ESA would cover, he’d consider it.

But in some cases, low-income public school kids may be financially better off staying put. Compared to the $5700 offered through the ESA program, Washoe County spends about $8,500 per student.

Helen, the Wooster high senior, is glad to be in public school, and plans to attend the University of Nevada, Reno next year to major in psychology.

“I think it’s a pretty good school," she says. "It’s very diverse. It’s an school also, so the curriculum … at least since I’m in IB … is really advanced, and challenges me. And even for the kids who aren’t in IB, it’s like everyone gets a well-rounded education. ”

Close to half the kids at Wooster qualify for free and reduced lunch, but it’s also the only International Baccalaureate (IB) high school in Reno. That means it offers an advanced program in the final two years aimed at preparing students for college.

There are four other states that have either enacted or are pursuing ESA programs – Arizona, Florida, Tennessee and Vermont. While ESAs in these states are only available to special needs or low-income students, Nevada is taking a universal approach, opening ESA access to all public school students. Now education reform advocates say Nevada’s challenge will be ensuring its universal program doesn’t leave anyone out.