Workforce Development

High Stakes Rules For Nevada’s Education Savings Accounts

This post was written by Jonathan Butcher, who is education director at the Goldwater Institute and senior fellow at the Beacon Center.

For 17 years, Fit Learning in Reno, Nevada has been tutoring students in a variety of subjects. Every child is different, and current director Donny Newsome, Ph.D., explains that Fit has helped students across the learning spectrum.

“The reason parents seek us out is because everything else they have tried has failed,” Newsome says. “We work with all varieties of kids, and parents come to us with all kinds of different goals.”

Earlier this year, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval signed a law that allows every public school child in the state to apply for an education savings account, which parents could use to pay for services like those Fit Learning offers. With an account, the state will deposit approximately $5,000 (more for children from low-income families) in a private bank account that parents can use to buy educational products and services for their children. Parents can pay for online classes and private school tuition, or save for college, along with purchasing tutoring services, among other potential uses.

Nevada Treasurer Dan Schwartz and his team are doing the hard work of writing rules and regulations to govern the accounts and deciding if places like Fit Learning could accept education savings accounts as a form of payment. The treasurer has held two hearings and listened to comments from the public on his office’s proposed rules.

The treasurer should allow parents enough flexibility to promote student achievement while also protecting taxpayers from fraud. The treasurer is already considering regulations that mirror Goldwater Institute ideas such as surety bonds that prevent misuse of account funds.

Treasurer Schwartz must be careful not to limit—or erase—parents’ and students’ educational choices while writing the rules.

For example, Fit Learning’s Newsome says that it is not clear if his tutoring center would be an eligible tutor under Nevada’s new law. “In light of things that are still vague, I can’t give [parents] a clear answer about it,” Newsome says.

Fortunately for students and Nevada policymakers, Fit Learning has an affiliate in Phoenix, Arizona called Blossom Park, where families are using education savings accounts under the nation’s first education savings account law to pay for services. Policymakers should use Arizona’s savings account model and look for similar participating providers to create list of eligible learning centers in Nevada.

A survey of families using Arizona’s accounts found that 41 percent of respondents reported using their account for educational therapy and more than one-third used an education savings account to hire tutoring services.

Treasurer Schwartz also needs to make sure his agency’s rules do not stifle eligible schools and other vendors like online schools. For example, the treasurer’s office is considering a rule that would allow the treasurer to “disqualify a participating entity” if the agency “has reasonable cause to believe that the qualified student is not making reasonable academic progress.”

While the treasurer should protect students and taxpayers from low-quality learning centers, parents are in the right position to decide what is in their child’s best interests. Nevada education savings account students will be required by law to take tests in math and reading each year. Since parents are choosing where and how their children learn, families should be the ones that decide what to do as a result of student achievement.

Some educational providers, like educational therapists and online course providers that students use to take a single class, only work with students part-time. Education savings accounts give families the chance to choose multiple learning options for a student. How could we ever judge what portion of a child’s test score reflects what is learned during each individual learning experience?

Stiff regulations may give schools and other education vendors the incentive to only prepare students for a test instead of providing unique, challenging learning experiences for every child across a wide range of subjects.

Nevada’s treasurer’s office is taking a great step for students in the state by listening to public comments and crafting rules to govern the program. At a hearing last week, the treasurer’s chief of staff, Grant Hewitt, reported that their office had received more than 2,200 education savings account applications and were reviewing 75-100 new applications daily. The treasure should make sure Nevada’s education savings account rules fulfill the accounts’ potential of giving every child the chance at a great education.

Crossposted at the Goldwater Institute.


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