Other States Embrace Universal ESAs as Nevada Says No
Education freedom advocate Erin Phillips of Power2Parent in Nevada believes the recent passage of universal education savings accounts in Arizona and West Virginia bodes well for Nevada families seeking academic options, even if some Silver State officials oppose the idea.
Arizona’s ESA program went into effect on Sept. 30 after opponents failed to gather enough signatures to proceed with efforts to stop universal ESAs there.
The West Virginia Supreme Court ruled on October 6 that its universal ESA program, the Hope Scholarship, was constitutional.
“[ESAs] should really be a non-partisan issue. Democrat families want this, Republican families want this and independents want this. Hispanic and Black families want this,” Phillips told Nevada Policy.
Demand for ESA funding has skyrocketed in Arizona, forcing the state Department of Education to extend the application deadline to Oct. 15. Families began applying for the program after Gov. Doug Ducey signed the program into law in July.
Before Arizona approved universal ESAs, they were restricted to special needs students, military families, students in failing school districts and students on Native American reservations. West Virginia did not have a similar program for K-12 students before its Hope Scholarship.
The only education choice program Nevada offers at present, by comparison, is the Opportunity Scholarship Program, for families whose incomes do not exceed 300 percent of the poverty level. For example, a Nevada family of four making less than $83,250 annually is eligible for a scholarship of up to $8,469 for K-12 private school tuition.
If Nevada had universal ESAs, one way that the program could work is that students would be required to attend one full year of public school in order to take advantage of ESAs unless they are in kindergarten. When a child is already counted as a public school student, that money will be allocated to that child. Nevada students who opt out of public schools would receive 90 percent of the per-pupil funding to go to a school that best fit their needs.
“We’ve really tried to moderate the way that we funded the students that made sense for all parties,” Phillips said. “You’re taking a student out of that school, and now there are lower class sizes, but [public schools] still get paid for a portion of that student.”
Education freedom advocates have been stymied in attempts to bring ESAs to Nevada.
ESAs were passed by the Nevada Legislature in 2015 and signed into law by former Gov. Brian Sandoval. The Nevada Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that universal ESAs were constitutional, but found that their funding was not. After Democrats gained a legislative majority in 2019, they gutted the statute, effectively killing educations savings accounts in the state.
Nevada would have been first in the nation to offer ESAs to all students had the program not been scuttled.
The setback led Phillips to start Education Freedom for Nevada PAC in 2021. She filed constitutional and statutory ballot initiatives to make ESAs law with the secretary of state’s office this year.
The Las Vegas-based Rogers Foundation filed lawsuits to stop the initiatives earlier this year, arguing that public schools are underfunded.
Retired Carson City Judge Charles McGee then struck down the constitutional initiative in April due to the “lack of clarity of consequences” and later did the same with the statutory ballot initiative because there was no funding source. The Nevada Supreme Court affirmed Judge McGee’s rulings this summer.
Even after the decisions on both ballot initiatives, Phillips said that neither Judge McGee nor the Nevada Supreme Court provided satisfactory answers.
“We were hopeful that when we appealed [the decision] to the Supreme Court that we at least have a better understanding of the concerns,” she said. “What can happen oftentimes is that they’ll offer a fix.
“There was no constructive feedback really at all in order for us to be able to fix the funding,” Phillips added.
The Nevada Supreme Court stated that there cannot be an initiative that does not have a funding source, but Phillips responded that Education Freedom for Nevada PAC left the initiative open for the legislature to decide on how to fund it.
“If you look at it from the perspective that we’re looking at it from, there’s a funding source already in place for education in Nevada,” she said. “In fact, [the legislature] just changed the funding formula in the last session to reflect more of a funds-follow-the-student model, and that’s what we’ve been asking for.
“We did make a very clear delineation of where the funding is coming from and how the funding follows the student so that we’re not having to find a new funding source,” Phillips added.
For the upcoming legislative session, Phillips plans to work on legislation to fix the funding formula to ensure that “actual dollars follow the student.” She wants to engage more parents and students with Power2Parent and teach them how to lobby for universal ESAs and education freedom.