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May 31, 2016

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Nevada follows national trend in families seeking alternatives to public schools

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Brad Coman / Nevada Appeal / AP

Students Isabel Onisile, 11, and Octavia McKindra, 11, attend a rally at Sierra Nevada Academy Charter School at the National School Choice Week Capitol celebration Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015, in Carson City.

It’s National School Choice Week, which seems like an appropriate time to take stock of how the school choice movement is doing in Nevada.

In two words: Pretty good.

School choice activists, buoyed by local conservative advocacy groups like the Nevada Policy Research Institute, have been particularly muscular in the Silver State recently following the state's adoption of education savings accounts, which provide state funds for students to attend private schools. Similarly, enrollment and demand for charter and magnet schools also has been high.

In Clark County, hundreds of parents and students turned out at Cashman Center on Tuesday to celebrate National School Choice Week. Wearing the annual event’s signature yellow scarves, they cheered speeches by a local charter school principal, concerned parents as well as Republican State Sen. Scott Hammond, who authored the state’s ESA program.

Click to enlarge photo

Senator Scott Hammond of the 77th (2013) Nevada Senatorial District.

“For the first time, Nevada ranks at the top of the list for school choice,” said Grant Hewitt, chief of staff for state treasurer Dan Schwartz. Schwartz's office has been a vigorous defender of ESAs, working to draw up regulations for the program.

Here’s where Nevada currently stands on some key areas of school choice:

Charter schools

About 6,000 more students are attending charter schools now compared to last year, even though only one new charter school has opened since then. That’s because many charter schools are expanding existing facilities, according to Patrick Gavin, executive director of the State Public Charter School Authority. “We added more kids than a typical school district [in Nevada],” he said. Total charter school enrollment in Nevada currently sits around 35,000, but charter officials say that number could rise to more than 63,000 by 2020, which would make the state charter school authority larger than the Washoe County School District. That coincides with a national increase in enrollment at charter schools, which now are attended by about 3 million students. In Nevada, the charter school movement got a bump during last year’s Legislature after lawmakers tore down some of the legal barriers preventing the schools from receiving the same funds and grants awarded to public schools. “The Legislature took steps toward greater fiscal independence, but there’s still more we can do,” Gavin said. “That’s what’s keeping us from being No. 1.”

Private schools

Last year’s passage of SB302 established a system of voucher-like education savings accounts and quickly became the school choice program of note in the nation, not to mention Nevada. It allows qualifying families to receive funds normally used by the state to pay for their student’s education — upwards of $5,000 — to spend on things like private school or tutoring. But unlike similar programs enacted in states like Arizona, which typically limit them to students with disabilities or those who attend failing schools, Nevada’s version is open to pretty much anyone. Predictably, the controversial program was challenged in court by public school advocates and is on hold pending an appeal to the state Supreme Court. But the cat is arguably already out of the bag. The program has already received more than 4,000 applications and spawned a considerable outreach effort by both local groups and national school choice advocates like the Friedman Foundation. Before the passage of the ESA program, private school enrollment in Nevada was one of the lowest in the nation, but that could change in the future as groups like the Drexel Fund, a self-described “venture philanthropy” firm that invests in private schools, expand their reach into the state.

Magnet schools

Magnet schools and career and technical academies are some of the most sought-after schools in CCSD. They offer specialized programs that give students focused, rigorous training in areas like engineering, math and arts in addition to normal classes. CTAs, of which there are seven serving almost every region of the valley, are regularly among the highest performing schools in Nevada. This year, CCSD added seven magnet programs to its roster, with four more expected to arrive in time for the 2016-2017 school year. That’s an increase of more than 3,500 seats, which is good news for parents. There were only enough seats for 6,000 students of the 17,000 who applied in 2014. The additions include a performing arts program at Del Sol High School and video game design courses at Eldorado High School.

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