By Karen Gray and Michael Schaus
Isabella — Rita’s kindergarten daughter — needed help learning English.
But the public school Isabella was attending refused to help, even though it has been ranked as one of the Clark County School District’s best.
Despite being labeled a “5-Star Exemplary Reward School,” the administrators always had a number of typical, bureaucratic, excuses for failing to teach Isabella basic English. The bottom line was that the school was not delivering on its promises, and it didn’t intend to change.
But Rita refused to give up on her daughter’s future.
And so she looked to Nevada’s new educational-choice programs — the Nevada Choice Scholarship Program and the Education Savings Accounts, or ESAs — for some alternatives.
Armed with the new opportunities, Rita set out to get little Isabella into one of the most expensive private schools in the Las Vegas valley.
Rita notes that ESA opponents, such as Educate Nevada Now!, say the ESA program disenfranchises low income, minority, English-language-learner children such as Isabella, asserting they will not be accepted into elite schools, nor can they afford the remaining tuition.
The reality, however, was that Isabella was received into not one, but two premier private schools in the valley.
“These people — Educate Nevada Now! — the ones suing to stop the program, saying someone like Isabella would never get into an expensive school, they say they are protecting people like me,” explains Rita.
Consequently, she now has fears and worries that Isabella’s future may still be ripped from her grasp.
“I don’t think they care about Isabella’s success. I think they have other agendas,” says Rita.
So, this Friday when the Nevada Supreme Court hears oral arguments in the landmark education cases, Lopez and Duncan, not only will the justices be deciding the fate of the country’s most inclusive and expansive educational choice program — they’ll also be deciding the fate of little Isabella.
When Rita immigrated to the United States and received her U.S. citizenship, she had big dreams for her daughter. Like most parents, she just wanted what was best for her child.
But a little over a year ago, things looked impossible.
“They had nothing,” Rita says of her local CCSD school. “No programs, like they say they have, are actually offered to ELL students. Basic classes were just not enough.”
Despite $8.6 million in additional federal money, $15 million budgeted from a $40 million state earmark to the school district targeting English-language-learners (ELL) and nearly $50 million in full-day kindergarten appropriations, Isabella received nothing to help her.
As first generation U.S. citizens of Peruvian, Polish and Italian decent, the household was transitioning to the English language — and Isabella, then preparing to go into first grade, was struggling to learn English.
Initially, the local school had promised to help with personalized classes for ELL students. But a string of excuses ensued and it became painfully obvious Isabella was not going to get the interventions she needed to build a foundation for educational success.
For more than a year, Rita investigated programs, beseeched school administrators and researched education alternatives. Yet, this working, single mother, herself a student at UNLV, struggled to find the kind of support Isabella deserved — and needed.
Then something miraculous happened…
“Today she’s competing in spelling bees,” Rita told the Nevada Policy Research Institute. “But last year, she could barely speak English.”
Rita had learned about the two new educational choice programs passed by Nevada lawmakers in 2015.
“When I first learned about the tax scholarship program, and Education Savings Accounts, it was like a dream come true,” Rita says.
It wasn’t just the money for school that made Rita hopeful — it was the new opportunity now open to both her and Isabella.
It was the escape from a long-failed school system which had treated her daughter like a number.
“Public schools don’t really want parents involved,” Rita explained. “They fight you if you become seriously involved in your child’s education.”
So, with the tax scholarship in hand and her ESA application filed, Rita quickly put her mind into getting Isabella into one of the most expensive private schools in Las Vegas.
Isabella was accepted.
With an annual tuition hovering around $21,000, Rita’s $7,755 tax scholarship barely touched the costs. However, like many private schools, this school had its own financial-aid program and ultimately covered the remaining tuition.
The flexibility of Nevada’s ESA program would provide Rita with the funds to cover additional educations costs — such as fees, transportation, mandatory testing and even a tutor to help Isabella reach academic success.
But it quickly became obvious the price of a school’s tuition does not necessarily equate to the right school — with the right people — for Isabella.
“We learned that you don’t have to go to the most expensive school for the best education, “said Rita, reflectively. “All that really matters, is that it fits your child.”
So, Rita immediately began shopping for a better fit. And after extensive research, Rita found an elite private school that provided the atmosphere and the resources to help Isabella realize the success she deserved.
Isabella’s new classroom is equipped to embrace her Spanish and Italian language skills while developing her mastery of English.
“Last year, she could barely understand English. Now she’s competing in spelling bees!” Rita brags again, beaming with pride. And Isabella feels she has found a home. Most important of all, Isabella loves going to school.
“The school,” says Rita, “has simply provided us with all their academic support and encouragement to continue in the right path of education.”
At the start, Isabella tested far below grade level. But rather than send her back to kindergarten, teachers, administrative staff and Rita worked as a team to develop an individualized plan. And through long hours, and a dedicated effort on everyone’s part, Isabella, in less than one academic year is now competing in spelling bees.
“That is why choice is so important,” Rita explains. ESAs, she argues, are the tool parents have been missing.
Today, however, because of the court battles challenging Nevada’s ESA program, Rita still finds herself in the fight of her life for Isabella’s future.
“The school has worked with me. They have helped me with the extra financial help to keep my daughter there — but I don’t know how much longer any of that can last,” Rita says. “If ESAs don’t happen, we can’t stay. It’s that simple.”
With the new school year approaching and tuition coming due, time is of the essence. The only thing standing between Isabella and her future is the Educate Nevada Now! lawsuit.
“If it wasn’t for Educate Nevada Now and the injunction,” explains Rita, “nothing would be blocking a bright future for Isabella. We’ve found the perfect fit. Without the ESA, without that $5,000 to help with tuition, what will be Isabella’s future?”
Rita knows Nevada ranks dead last or near last, nationally, in education and has for multiple decades. She also knows the statistics for ELL students like Isabella. In 2012, the ELL graduation rate for Clark County School District where Isabella attends was a mere 23 percent.
In a nightmare scenario that could easily become all too real, Rita shudders at the thought she may have to send Isabella back to the “5-Star” public school that failed to even teach her basic English in the first place.
“The ability to make choices for your child — that’s the most important part of being a parent,” says Rita. “And that’s what ESAs do.”
To Rita, after all, an Education Savings Account isn’t about politics, policy or public education.
It’s about Isabella.