Courts Can Choose Educational Freedom In Nevada and Florida

Adam Jones & Skylar Zander Nevada Director * Florida Deputy Director, Americans for Prosperity
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Right now, families in Nevada and Florida face the same disturbing threat: Opponents of school choice policies are seeking to shut off access to better education. Specifically, they have initiated legal challenges to the states’ programs to return more choice and control to parents and students. The future of school choice will soon be decided in both places.

This summer, the Nevada Supreme Court heard a case challenging the recently-passed Educational Savings Account program, claiming that the state has no authority to restore parents’ role in their children’s education. A decision is expected any day. In Florida, a three-judge panel unanimously dismissed a case against the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program. The president of the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, will now decide whether to appeal the decision to Florida’s Supreme Court. That case will also likely be decided within the year.

If the courts rule against school choice, parents may lose the freedom they have recently gained: to choose an education option that best fits their children’s needs.

This deeply matters for families in both states. Take the example of Glynis Gallegos, a single parent of three in Nevada. The lawsuit there challenges the Nevada Educational Savings Account program – a program passed in 2015 to allow education tax dollars to follow students to the school of their choice – whether that’s a private, home school, online, or special education program. Gallegos is counting on the ESA for her son’s education: “If they take away ESAs, they will prevent my son from obtaining an exceptional education and return him to a learning environment that does not meet his needs,” Gallegos explains.

Likewise, in Florida, Cheryl Joseph’s three daughters participate in a similar program that’s being threatened by litigation – the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, passed in 2001 and one of the nation’s oldest programs of its kind. It currently provides opportunities to over 92,000 low-income students to attend a school of their choice. To Joseph, the scholarships are her lifeline to ensuring her zip code does not dictate her daughters’ future. That’s why she joined the lawsuit to defend the program. As she puts it, “Some have enough money to move into neighborhoods where the public schools are excellent… Many of us can’t afford to move, but thanks to the scholarships, we have choices.”

Educational choice programs, such as the ones in Nevada and Florida, empower parents and guardians to explore options tailored to their children’s needs. Rather than trying to straight-jacket an educational approach, these programs lift government barriers so that students, regardless of zip code or income bracket, have the opportunity to receive a quality education.

Both of these programs have expanded educational opportunities to students who otherwise may have been trapped in failing schools, or schools that weren’t best suited to address their individual needs. In Nevada, for instance, more than 10 percent of government schools ranked as underperforming last year. Reading and math scores for Hispanic students during 2013 were even more devastating. Now, those students, and nearly every child in the state, can choose schools with better success rates and more personalized learning through the ESA program. Although the program hasn’t been around long enough to measure its success, smaller programs in other states, such as Arizona’s ESA program, have had significant success.

It’s a similar story in Florida. Since Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship program has existed for over a decade, a number of studies have evaluated the program. A Northwestern University study found that students who used the scholarships were among the lowest performers in the public schools they left. But once they received a Tax Credit Scholarship, they reached the same math and reading gains as their peers nationally – including wealthy students.

And the best part is that programs like the Florida and Nevada school choice programs boost the performance of all schools, including traditional public schools, as 29 studies from across the nation have found.

The simple fact is that empowering parents with more choices for educating their children result in more equality and opportunity for all. It remains to be seen what will happen in the Nevada and Florida courts. But regardless, lawmakers must take steps to protect school choice in the years ahead – or better yet, expand it so even more children have an opportunity to thrive.

Adam Jones and Skylar Zander are Nevada state director and Florida deputy state director of Americans for Prosperity, respectively.