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Nevada Joins Ranks of ESA States, Adds Momentum to Educational Choice

A few months ago one of my Education Policy Center friends created one of the first-ever Freedom Minute videos on “The Education Debit Card.” Remember? It’s everywhere you want to learn or Don’t leave home without it.

The Education Debit Card is a catchier name for Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). Dubbed the “iPhone” of school choice by Matt Ladner, ESAs give families control over a prescribed amount of state education funds to be used on private school tuition, tutoring, instructional materials, online courses, educational therapies, or to save for college expenses. More than any kind of choice program, it targets dollars to serve students’ individual learning needs.

At the time the video was made there were exactly two states with ESAs: Arizona and Florida. And both those states had limited eligibility, mostly students with recognized special needs and/or in special circumstances (e.g., foster care or military family). As of yesterday, there are five states, including the first to offer nearly universal ESAs to all public school children.

Yesterday Gov. Brian Sandoval made Nevada a big two-for-one school choice legislative session: first, scholarship tax credits, and now the first nearly universal ESA program.

The amount of funds available to individual Nevada families is relatively low compared to the other ESA states (though low-income and special needs students have access to somewhat more dollars), but the only restriction on eligibility is that the student must have attended at least 100 days of school in their assigned neighborhood public school. According to the Friedman Foundation, 93 percent of the state’s K-12 students are eligible… Wow! In other words, a big step in the right direction.

Before Nevada, a couple of Southern states started this year’s ESA trifecta. Mississippi became the third state to adopt “the way of the future,” offering $6,500 state-funded accounts to 500 special needs children the first year (and 500 more in Year 2).

The big surprise was Tennessee. Shortly after sadly losing a big effort for a low-income student school choice program, the state legislature and governor approved an ESA, called an IEA, for special needs students.

And of course, Nevada makes five ESA states — which, being my perpetual age, also happens to be my favorite number. (Though I’ll be happy to see the number of states reach six or higher, and pass me on by.)

The Year of School Choice: Part II has witnessed the number of ESA states more than double. Back in February, Politico identified nine states where such programs would be on the table for legislative debate and consideration, and three of them crossed the finish line.

They missed the 10th state: our own Colorado, which turned out to be only a small oversight. The proposed version of ESAs, called C-FLEX, got a hearing but didn’t make it through its first committee in the Democratic-controlled House. Maybe next time it will make a bigger splash here, or even be enacted to help the kids who need it.

Because momentum is on our side.