A Case Study for Betsy DeVos's Educational Utopia
Nevada's failed universal voucher program provided a useful template for what a school landscape could look like under the education secretary-nominee
In a low-key interview in 2015, the Education Secretary-nominee and billionaire school-choice advocate Betsy DeVos laid out the game plan for the movement going forward.
It was a familiar playbook—charter schools, online schools, and blended learning—to which DeVos added something of her own: DeVos supports all of those things, she said, plus “any combination, or any kind of choice that hasn’t yet been thought of.” While DeVos has since said that she wouldn’t push for a federal voucher mandate, the case of Nevada’s universal voucher could provide a blueprint for states to do it anyway.
When it was passed in 2015, the Nevada law establishing education savings accounts—a new form of voucher that places the money into a savings account—cracked a longstanding code that no other state had been able to touch. While the first wave of vouchers passed by states came with requirements to keep the money in the hands of families most affected by underperforming schools, voucher proponents saw an opportunity in Nevada to go even further.
State Republicans wrote the bill shoulder-to-shoulder with school-choice lobbyists and with the intention of creating the first “universal” voucher available to anyone regardless of income. Far from the labyrinthine requirements of programs in other states, the “Super Voucher,” as it has been dubbed by local public-school advocates, is so expansive that families qualify for up to $5,700 in state dollars simply if their child attended a public school for 100 days prior to applying.
More importantly, the voucher was baked into the existing budget for public education, allowing parents to take money the state would otherwise spend on schools and use it on things like private-school tuition, tutoring, and even homeschooling. It was the closest any state had come to the universal voucher originally envisioned by the economist Milton Friedman, who saw unfettered choice as the only hope to ensure poor families had access to good schools.
But data from Nevada, consistently ranked at the bottom in the nation for student achievement, quickly showed that a vast majority of applicants were not from low-income areas, but the wealthiest neighborhoods in Reno and Las Vegas. In fact, applicants came disproportionately from neighborhoods that already had Nevada's Universal School Vouchers Foreshadow DeVos Effects - The Atlantic: