Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015 | 2 a.m.
As lawyers duke it out over the constitutionality of Nevada’s landmark education savings account program and state officials iron out much-needed regulations, a major question facing ESAs has been who will do the work of building the robust public support the program needs to be successful in the long term.
The answer is a group of dedicated school choice advocates, who have quietly been putting a lot of hours into building a movement around the voucher-style program.
In Las Vegas, a grass-roots effort is being spearheaded by Coco Llenas, a longtime resident with a history of working for nonprofit organizations like the Public Education Foundation.
She is the founder of the newly formed Nevada School Choice Partnership, whose goal is to raise awareness and build support for the program in low-income neighborhoods that need it most.
“A lot of people in our community are linguistically isolated,” said Llenas. “They don’t read the newspaper, they don’t follow the legislation, so they don’t know these things are happening.”
Llenas has spent a lot of time canvassing neighborhoods and helping individual families navigate the state treasurer’s application process. The ultimate aim, says Llenas, is to build “a coalition” of families and organizations that will stand behind ESAs.
And while the work may not be as sexy as the politics behind the program, it’s absolutely crucial.
The state has one of the lowest rates of private school participation in the country, with only around 20,000 students. Many of those students are in the wealthy suburbs of Las Vegas, which counts among their ranks the largest and most prestigious private schools in the state, including Bishop Gorman, Faith Lutheran and the Meadows School.
But in the inner city low-income areas where Llenas works, there are far fewer options.
“I found a lot of pain and frustration from parents who didn’t have resources to pay for a tutor or remediation when their student wasn’t doing well at school,” she said. “When I talk to families (about the ESA) they say, ‘Hey, this is good news!’”
Llenas’ group is not alone. It was founded with the financial support of the American Federation for Children and the Friedman Foundation, the school-choice advocacy group that played a major role in drafting the ESA program in the Legislature earlier this year.
The president of the foundation, Robert Enlow, has spent a lot of time in Las Vegas speaking to various groups about the program. A couple of weeks ago, he was at the Las Vegas Country Club speaking to members of the Red Rock Rotary.
The advantage of the Foundation, one of the largest and most influential school choice groups in the country, is that it can connect local private school leaders with national organizations that can swoop in to help out.
One such organization is the Drexel Fund, which touts itself as a nonprofit “venture philanthropy” firm. The group is gearing up to raise money to increase the number of private school seats in Nevada.
The Friedman Foundation is focused on the bigger picture: Making sure the implementation of the ESA program goes smoothly. The foundation also is partnering with local groups like the Nevada Alliance for Latino Education and Justice to canvass Hispanic and Latino neighborhoods.
“We need to make sure that the rule making is done quickly and clearly so we can get out and market the program to families who need it,” Enlow said.
A big part of that lately has been figuring out who has applied for the program in the last few months of open enrollment. Data released recently by the treasurer’s office showed that more than 3,000 families have applied for the program, with most of those families coming from the wealthy suburbs of Las Vegas.
That data is important because it shows where school choice advocates like Enlow and Llenas need to focus their marketing efforts.
A recent stumbling block for the program has been a rule limiting who can receive an ESA, which has outraged a lot of families with students currently in private school.
Recent regulatory hearings held by the treasurer’s office have largely been a steady stream of parents complaining about the rule, which is why the work of groups like the Friedman Foundation, NSCP and the Drexel Fund is so valuable during the program’s infancy.
“The challenge is going to be making sure we keep everyone’s expectations at a realistic level,” Enlow said. “It takes time to do these things and do them well.”