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April 27, 2017

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Families in limbo after court puts education savings account program on hold

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L.E. Baskow

Daysi Lara joins her kids Dayson, 10, and Dayanara, 9, for homework after school Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016. Her family and she were planning to receive funding for private-school tuition through the state’s new education savings account program next month, but a judge ruled this week that the program was unconstitutional.

Daysi Lara was just waiting for Monday.

She had already spent $550 on uniforms and school supplies for her 10-year-old son Dayson and 9-year-old daughter Dayanara.

All that was left to do was watch them walk through the doors of Mountain View Christian School, a private academy that was finally within the family’s financial reach thanks to help from the state’s new education savings account program.

But on Jan. 11, just as she was about to walk into the school for an errand, she got a call from a friend: The program, meant to give families like Lara’s an alternative to struggling public schools, was put on hold by a state judge in a months-long legal battle.

Education Savings Account Halted

Daysi Lara joins her kids Dayanara, 9, and Dayson, 10, for homework after school Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016. Her family and she were planning to receive funding for private-school tuition through the state’s new education savings account program next month, but a judge ruled this week that the program was unconstitutional. Launch slideshow »

Now she and her family have been forced to suspend their plans, but they’re not the only ones. More than 4,000 families have applied for the program, and their lives have been disrupted as well.

“They were going to start on Monday,” Lara said. “Now I’m stuck.”

• • • 

The program has been criticized by many on the left as a luxury for affluent white people seeking an escape from public schools. And for the most part, the data in Nevada has backed up those fears.

Statistics released by the treasurer’s office last year showed that a majority of applicants for the program lived not in the inner city, but in suburbs and wealthy master-planned communities like Summerlin and Anthem.

But Lara's working-class neighborhood, near Nellis Boulevard and Stewart Avenue on Las Vegas' east side, where children riding home from school on bikes share sun-drenched streets with street vendors and clattering carts full of candy, bad public schools often are an inescapable reality.

Three-quarters of the students at nearby Rundle Elementary, where Dayson and Dayanara currently go to school, are Hispanic and roughly half are still trying to learn English. A majority qualify for free lunch. Facing these challenges, Rundle has been ranked as a two-star school by state education officials for nearly five years in a row. The rankings measure students' academic achievement, with five stars being the top rating.

Daysi’s mom Maritza, who only speaks Spanish, has the same reaction whenever someone brings up public schools.

“Muchas problemas,” she says, shaking her head. “No, no, no, no.”

• • • 

Lara’s family immigrated to Las Vegas from Ecuador in 2004.

When Daysi’s younger brother Joey started attending Valley High School, it was their first encounter with American public schools. They couldn’t understand why he left home with an empty backpack and came back without anything in it.

“We were never happy [with public schools in America] because we came from a country where education was the No. 1 priority no matter what,” she said.

Afraid he might get involved with drugs or gangs, Maritza quit her job to keep an eye on him after school. Shortly afterward, the family decided to share a house in order to be able to save money for private school. They ended up enrolling him at Mountain View Christian School.

Slowly but surely, he started making new friends, dressing different and using less slang. He returned home every day with a backpack full of books and assignments, and was forced to study constantly.

“It was worth it,” Joey said. “They care about you.”

When they were old enough, Dayson and Dayanara began asking if they could go to “Joey’s school,” but Daysi and her husband, Jesus, couldn’t afford it. In 2013, Daysi had twins. Even though they both have stable jobs — she works at Westgate Las Vegas and he works as a manufacturing technician for General Electric — the added financial stress of two more kids put it out of their reach.

That changed when they found out about the state’s new education savings account program and applied in October. Under the program, the family could have received upwards of $5,000 to use to enroll Dayson and Dayanara at MVCS. They could have ended up paying less than $1,000 for a year at the private school for both kids.

Before the ESA program was put on hold, payments were scheduled to go out as early as February.

“Everyone was so excited,” Daysi said. “That’s why I’m so devastated.”

• • •

Families like Daysi’s have become unwitting footballs in a political game that has popped up around Nevada’s education savings account program.

On one side are conservatives and those who say families should have other options besides public schools. On the other side are liberals and those who say the program will hurt public schools by eroding their funding and is the first step in dismantling the public school system altogether.

The voucher-style ESA program is easily the most sweeping school choice program of its kind in the nation, which is why it has faced two high-profile lawsuits by the American Civil Liberties Union and a group of parents backed by public education advocacy groups.

In an effort to stop the program from being scrapped by the courts, which could doom similar programs in other states in the future, national school choice groups have set their sights on Nevada and thrown their weight behind defending the program. On the other side, the national Education Law Center has done the same.

And it’s been a bitter war.

In a statement following the filing of the ACLU’s lawsuit, Republican state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer accused the organization of trying to “go back to a system of hard zoning, forcing poor and minority students into chronically failing schools and furthering cycles of generational poverty.”

Educate Nevada Now, one of the groups behind the lawsuits, called the program a “prescription for educational failure.”

And although the legality of the ESA program is on its way to being decided by the state Supreme Court, last week’s ruling was cheered by opponents of the program even though it meant that Lara and her family would have to abandon their dream.

“There’s no other choices for us,” she said. “I don’t want to wait.”

• • •

On a chilly afternoon last week, Daysi waited for her children to return home from school so she could break the news. A cold breeze floated through the open screen door. Upstairs, the family’s twins were fast asleep.

Then, at a little past 3 p.m., came the sound of children’s shoes shuffling over concrete. Dayson and Dayanara appeared at the door, smiling, with backpacks slung over their shoulders.

“You can’t go to school there on Monday,” Daysi said in a soft voice as they plopped down on the couch. “The court said you can’t go yet.”

Dayson shrugged, letting his backpack slip off his shoulders, while Dayanara looked down at her feet. They didn't say anything, but Daysi could tell they were disappointed. Dayson was looking forward to art class, his favorite subject, at Mountain View Christian School, which has an extensive art program.

The family is looking for alternatives, but so far they’ve emerged empty handed. They had previously applied for magnet schools and got a seat, but didn’t accept it because they assumed they would be able to use the ESA.

Now they’ve missed the deadline, they’re out of options, and $550 wasted on school uniforms is the least of their concerns.

“Those can be returned. The money can be back in my pocket,” Daysi said, turning to look at her kids. “But what about them?”

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