Montana and Nevada Make School Choice History

Last month’s Outlook noted that April had been a bonanza month for school choice legislation, with measures approved in six state legislatures: Arizona, Arkansas, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, and Tennessee. Governors in four of those states had already signed their respective bills by the end of April, and it looked like Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam would soon do the same (he did on May 19) but that Montana Governor Steve Bullock would not. Well, as expected, Bullock did not sign Montana’s school choice bill, but neither did he veto it, thereby allowing the tax credit scholarship legislation to become law on May 11 by default. The surprise move made Montana the 25th state in the country to have one or more private school choice programs.

Nevada

But an even more momentous school choice breakthrough took place on Friday, May 29, when the Nevada legislature approved the nation’s first universal education savings  account (ESA) program, effectively providing parents of every public school student in the state the chance to direct their child’s education. State lawmakers in effect doubled down on school choice by passing their second choice bill of the session, the first being a tax credit scholarship program.

Nevada Assemblyman James Oscarson said the ESA bill “sets a new top standard for school choice in our nation,” according to the Reno Gazette-Journal

If signed into law by Governor Brian Sandoval, the historic SB 302 would allow parents of children who have attended public school in the state for 100 consecutive days to enter into an agreement with the state to receive a grant equal to 90 percent of the statewide average per pupil support (100 percent for children from low-income families or children with disabilities). The money would be deposited into an education savings account that the parent could use for authorized expenditures, such as private school tuition, tutoring expenses, fees for distance learning programs, and the cost of textbooks. 

Participating private schools must ensure that ESA students take either the prescribed state exams in mathematics and English language arts or a norm-referenced achievement examination in mathematics and English language arts each year.

“We are thrilled that Nevada will soon be added to the list of states that offer multiple options and innovative school choice programs to families,” said Betsy DeVos, chairman of the American Federation for Children in an AFC news release. She called the vote “a victory for students throughout Nevada who await access to an education tailored to their needs.” DeVos went on to thank Nevada Senator Scott Hammond, the bill’s sponsor.

The same news release quoted Hammond as saying, “Students today are most successful when they can customize their educational experience to meet their unique needs and this bill provides that opportunity for all Nevada families.”

Montana

The new school choice law in Montana will provide individual taxpayers and businesses a dollar-for-dollar tax credit worth up to $150 for contributions to private school scholarship
organizations and/or to an innovative education fund for the state’s public schools.

The total amount of tax credits statewide may not exceed $3 million for each component of the program, but if the aggregate limit  is reached in a given year, the state must increase the limit by 10 percent for the succeeding year. 

The new program takes effect January 1, 2016, and defines a student scholarship organization as a charitable organization exempt from federal income tax that allocates not less than 90 percent of its revenue to scholarships. Any school-age child in the state is eligible for a scholarship, which may not exceed 50 percent of the average per-pupil expenditure in the state’s public schools. Scholarship organizations may not limit access to a particular school; nor may donors direct their contributions to specific students or schools.

Participating private schools must administer a nationally recognized standardized test and
make the results available to parents. If a school has students in eighth-grade or eleventh-grade, it must administer the test in those grades and make the overall results public on either the school’s Web site or the Web site of the state’s Office of Public Instruction. Schools must also satisfy any health and safety requirements that apply to private schools in the state.

(Map images ©niroworld/Dollar Photo Club)