Nevada is poised to become the first state to allow a universal form of school choice. It would allow parents to use money the state would have spent on public education and apply it to education or educational needs of a parent's choosing.
Republican Governor Brian Sandoval signed a bill this week that allows all parents in the state to take the approximately $5,000 allotted by the state to each child, and put it in an education savings account for their child and use it to send that child to any school in Nevada, or to home school that child.
Other states only allow those kinds of education savings accounts for students with disabilities or low-income children. What Nevada is doing is seen as a watershed, and other states are watching.
"This is a really exciting time for school choice advocates," Education Week staff writer Arianna Prothero told Here & Now's Robin Young. "This is really, for many of them, the fullest realization of the school choice ideals. It gives parents the freedom to totally customize their child's education, and at the same time, theoretically it will also bring education costs down and make things a little more efficient, because the idea is it incentivizes parents to use that money wisely."
The program allows parents to take their $5,000 and spend it on an "approved educational expenditure," which has to be cleared by the State Treasurer's Office. Students within the program will also have to take a yearly, state-administered test, the results of which are sent to the Nevada Department of Education, Prothero said.
Opponents of the program worry about the ramifications for public schools, and Prothero said realistically, not every student will be able to leave.
"It's not clear really if there's going to be some mass exodus from the public schools," she said. "Just because you can take public money and use it towards private school tuition, it doesn't mean there's enough seats in private schools to accommodate those people."
"It's not clear really if there's going to be some mass exodus from the public schools."Arianna Prothero
Similar education savings account programs in Arizona and Florida - the only other states where they exist - have faced legal challenges at the state level. But Nevada, Prothero said, could be in for a larger-scale court battle.
"So far, [Arizona and Florida] have survived those challenges, but it's not clear how that will play out in Nevada," she said. "Because Nevada has such an expansive program, it could potentially open it up to a challenge in federal court."
There are also concerns about the program only catering to wealthier families for whom private school - which typically costs much more than $5,000 a year - is a realistic financial option.
"You could end up with a system where the only people who are able to take advantage of this program are the people who are advantaged to begin with," she said. "It's not clear how that's going to play out. Again, it sort of depends on how accessible some of these private schools are, and whether parents even opt to use the tuition for private school."
While Nevada's program gives students and their families the option to strike out in search of different educational opportunities, Prothero said some may find that public school is still the best option.
"Ultimately, it could be difficult to get a good education with $5,000 outside of the public system," she said.
This segment aired on June 5, 2015.