NO on ESAs: Hire quality teachers and raise expectations instead

by Scott Van Winkle

As a former teacher in the Clark County School District and the parent of a child in a private, faith-based pre-school, I can see the school choice law from both sides. One thing the media has missed is that the law favors wealthy students, who would benefit from the Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) the law creates more than poorer students, and is therefore unfair. On the other hand, it would create opportunities for some poor students to escape public schools where expectations are low, and educational outcomes are often worse for individual students. I side with the public school advocates who see the law as a threat.

The teachers’ union and organizations that support public schools see the ESAs as a money grab for private schools, aimed at diverting funding from the public school system toward schools that tend to be run by churches or religious non-profits. This plan does create concerns about public funding of religious organizations, which the Nevada constitution specifically outlaws, and that argument is the nutshell of the legal argument against the law and the reason the court has rightly ruled against the law.

On the other side, private school advocates, faith-based groups, and some parents see the ESAs as a way to increase choice in education, particularly from disadvantaged groups or kids who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford private school. The program would create competition for the public school system, even for parents who otherwise wouldn’t consider private school, because it allows parents to “opt out” of the system for their child, designating funds from tax money to subsidize their enrollment in private school.

The public school defenders see the issue as one of fairness to students who may not have the option or desire to attend private school, either because the schools are not in their neighborhoods or because they do not belong to a particular faith that would benefit from the ESAs. Diverting funds from the public school system to private schools is robbing the poor to feed the rich, they argue. The private school defenders describe the issue as one of fairness to students in poorer neighborhoods, where good teachers are harder to find, the facilities are older, and education in general faces greater obstacles, but in fact, more of the money would go to suburban schools than inner-city ones.

The problem comes down to low expectations for kids in poorer neighborhoods. The school choice law does not offer a viable solution to the problem it purports to solve. Raising expectations at low-performing schools has to happen, regardless of the student population. Whether individual students are better served by a transfer to private schools is not the issue. Individual students will be able to find a solution to a poor education if their parents are involved, advocate for higher standards, and find ways to teach their kids both inside and outside of school. The bigger issues facing public education today have to deal with perception, which becomes reality, that our public schools are failing.

CCSD has become a target because it is perceived as a giant bureaucracy, but the fact that it is the largest employer in Clark County does not mean that it is a one-size-fits-all organization. Every school has its own culture and organization, and teacher quality makes the biggest difference in the quality of education that every student receives. Focusing on teacher quality at the lower-performing schools is one solution. It isn’t possible even for good teachers to reach every kid, but it is possible to have high expectations and to help them learn — to go from where they are to where they can be — regardless of their economic situation. Attracting and retaining high quality teachers at low performing schools should be the goal, and we shouldn’t take resources away from those schools. Instead, we should incentivize teachers to teach long-term at lower-performing schools, not just with money but with recognition and respect.

The school choice law further erodes confidence in the system, as opposed to strengthening it. There is a lot of choice in CCSD right now, since kids can attend magnet schools or find a teacher or program that works for them. We need to change the perception that the system as a whole is failing, and this law is not the answer.