Opinion

All States Should Emulate Nevada’s Universal School Choice Plan

Lance Izumi Pacific Research Institute

With a landmark stroke of his pen, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval recently signed legislation establishing the nation’s first statewide school-choice education-savings-account program available to all parents, regardless of their income level. With new studies showing widespread underperformance among middle-class children across the country, other states should implement similar programs immediately.

Under Nevada’s new program, for parents earning above the low-income level, the state will deposit funds, totaling 90 percent of the average statewide support per pupil, or roughly $5,100, into education savings accounts (ESAs). For parents earning below the low-income level or who have children with special needs, the state will deposit 100 percent of the average statewide support per pupil, around $5,700, into parents’ ESAs. Parents can then withdraw funds from their ESAs to pay for a variety of educational services such as private-school tuition, distance-learning online programs, and tutoring.

Giving all parents, regardless of their income level, the opportunity to choose the best education for their children makes sense, not only because many middle-class parents, struggling from paycheck to paycheck to make ends meet, don’t have the resources to afford private-school tuition or tutoring services, but also because many public schools are failing to raise the performance of middle-class students. Nevada is a perfect example.

On the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), often called the nation’s report card, 59 percent of non-low-income Nevada eighth graders, six in 10, failed to score at the proficient level on both the 2013 NAEP reading and math exams. New research shows that such underperformance among middle-class students is not limited to Nevada.

A series of recent studies by the Pacific Research Institute has found that large percentages of middle-class students in states as different as Michigan and Texas are failing to achieve proficiency in reading and math.

In Michigan, 55 percent of non-low-income eighth graders failed to reach the proficient mark on the 2013 NAEP reading exam. Worse, 58 percent of these middle-class students failed to reach proficiency on the NAEP eighth-grade math exam.

Further, out of the 677 Michigan regular public schools with predominantly non-low-income student populations – what many would call “middle-class” schools – 316, or 47 percent, had half or more of their students in at least one grade level failing to meet or exceed the proficient level on the 2013 Michigan state reading or math exams.

In Texas, 54 percent of non-low-income eighth graders failed to achieve proficiency on the 2013 NAEP reading exam, while 47 percent failed to reach proficiency on the eighth-grade math exam.

In addition, out of the 1,115 Texas regular public schools with predominantly non-low-income student populations, 672, or 60 percent, had half or more of their students in at least one grade level failing to meet or exceed the state’s recommended benchmark of proficiency on Texas reading or math tests in 2013.

The bottom line is that many of the public schools in this country that serve middle-class students are not as good as people think they are. It is therefore critical that states enact programs, such as the Nevada’s groundbreaking education savings accounts, that give all parents the ability to choose the best educational option for their children. Choice is a right for all, not just for some.

Lance Izumi is Koret senior fellow and senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute and author of the recent study “Not as Good as You Think: Why Middle-Class Parents in Michigan Should Be Concerned about Their Local Public Schools.”