This is the thirteenth entry in Fordham’s education savings account Wonkathon. This year, Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to opine on ESAs. Click to read earlier entries from Michael Goldstein, Seth Rau, Matthew Ladner, Jonathan Butcher, Tracey Weinstein, Andy Smarick, Neerav Kingsland, Lindsey M. Burke, Jason Bedrick, Adam Peshek, Robin Lake, and Travis Pillow.
If you read SB 302, the Nevada legislation that establishes education savings accounts, you quickly realize how ambitious the program is. Section 9 enumerates the appropriate uses of funds, including transportation costs “up to but not to exceed $750 per school year.” Section 12 puts the onus on educational entities to ensure that students take mandatory norm-referenced exams in language arts and math?—?and “provide for value-added assessments of the results.” Section 15.5 goes beyond academics, affirming that children who “opt in” to the program “must be allowed to participate in interscholastic activities and events” sanctioned by a statewide body.
These legislative details may seem arcane in isolation. But collectively, they illustrate the sweeping and comprehensive nature of the bill. ESAs are not envisioned as accessories to the public school system; they are meant to be interwoven into the educational fabric of the state.
With this all-encompassing approach, Nevada sets itself apart from other recent movements to promote choice. Its predecessors were targeted interventions. They sought to address the needs of underserved students in narrowly defined ways. As Andy Smarick referenced, No Child Left Behind facilitated supplemental educational services, which were limited to “extra academic help” for low-income families in chronically underperforming schools. Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee shifted toward more flexible ESAs, but student eligibility was predicated on school conditions (a D or F rating) or demographics (special education or socioeconomic status). Whether explicitly stated or not, these programs were premised on the idea that the educational system had somehow fallen short and that ESAs would help to fill the gap. Nevada’s wide-ranging model is fundamentally different. Its universal scope, estimated at 93 percent of school-age children, means that it is striving to reform the core system altogether.
Consequently, Nevada has a unique set of challenges that requires a unique set of solutions. In terms of implementing the ESAs, foremost issue confronting the state is that it must operate at scale from the start. It doesn’t have the luxury of piloting the program with a small population of students before expanding the pool, as was the case in other states. Even if family participation slowly trickles in during the early days, it must assume a strategy of large-scale systemic reform?—?and that’s a rather difficult undertaking when you’re the first in the nation.
Simultaneously, as new accounts are being established throughout the state, Nevada must redefine its role in the educational ecosystem. SB 302 envisions active involvement from the state treasurer. It specifies that the treasurer must administer parent agreements, oversee financial companies responsible for managing the accounts, and approve service providers. It also identifies the treasurer’s office as the responsible agency for administering a parent satisfaction survey (with very particular questions), while the state’s department of education coordinates the collection and aggregation of student data. Even if these agencies have a history of working well together, ESAs will necessitate a new level of collaboration. And that’s on top of a reconfigured relationship between the state, local districts, and families.
In unleashing the power of choice, Nevada puts itself in the position of ensuring that the educational marketplace functions properly?—?that the individual needs of students are met by high-quality service providers. This means it can’t simply perform the roles of compliance and enforcement. It must broker information as well. The question is whether it can build this “matchmaking framework” in relatively short order.
Given the scale and timeline of the program, it’s doubtful that public agencies can?—?or should?—?do it alone. Instead, Nevada should adopt the mindset of enabling organic solutions and exchanges of information, similar to what Matthew Ladner describes. Technology should be at the center of its plans. Nevada’s ambitious legislation needs an equally visionary approach to public management.
Robert Tagorda leads education reform efforts in Southern California.