When it comes to education reform, Nevada and California are a tale of two states — the best of times and the worst of times. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval has signed legislation creating a universal school-choice program that will allow parents the freedom to choose the best education for their children. In contrast, under Gov. Jerry Brown, California now gives local school bureaucrats and officials more leeway to decide what they think is best for children. Nevada’s new law makes it the first state to offer education savings accounts to all parents of school-age children, and the fifth (after Arizona, Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee) to adopt some form of these accounts. For parents earning above the low-income level, the state will deposit funds, totaling 90 percent of the average statewide average support per pupil, or roughly $5,100, into their accounts. 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, around $5,700. Parents then can withdraw funds to pay for educational services such as private-school tuition, distance-learning programs and tutoring. Any funds remaining at the end of a school year may be rolled over to the next school year, giving parents the chance to save in order to meet higher future expenses. Education savings accounts promote educational quality and cost control. As Jason Bedrick of the Cato Institute and Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation have written, these accounts give parents “the ability to maximize the value their children get from their education services, and, because they control how and when the money is spent, they have a greater incentive to control costs, too.” By contrast, in 2013, California adopted local control funding formula for public K-12 education. Under Brown’s plan, most specific-purpose programs were eliminated, and local education officials were given greater discretion as to how to spend these previously earmarked dollars. The new funding plan requires districts to create accountability plans that include community-engagement mechanisms, goals for school and student performance, and a listing of all district services and programs. While impressive in theory, the accountability reality has fallen short of expectations. According to a 2015 state Legislative Analyst’s Office report, none of the 50 districts reviewed complied with every requirement for goal-setting, progress-tracking, and goal-attainment actions. Also, poor district reporting makes it impossible to determine whether new funding is going to new activities to improve performance or simply going to continue the status quo. Despite the state’s rhetoric about community engagement, districts frequently lack clear metrics and targets for parent involvement. The report also found that districts failed to provide clear or compelling rationales for how they were using extra dollars for low-income and non-English-fluent students. Overall, there were widespread flaws, with district goals that were unspecific, unmeasurable or not reasonably attainable. Further, California’s funding formula greatly increases education spending. Because of state funding promises to local school districts, the vast majority of districts will receive more state taxpayer dollars than before. And how have school districts used their new discretionary control? One major survey of local education agencies found that many districts have used their new powers to raise teacher salaries and implement the controversial Common Core national education standards, which the state adopted in 2010 but many parents oppose.
Unless parents can easily take their children out of failing public schools, don’t expect government to feel enough pressure to improve the system. Brown could learn something from Sandoval.