Nevada has the worst-performing schools in the United States. State lawmakers are trying to change that. One solution: a new law that would provide taxpayer money for kids to attend private schools.

The Republican-led state legislature passed the law last year to provide parents with at least $5,100 a year in taxpayer money for private school tuition. The law is being challenged in Nevada's courts by a group of parents who say public money is for public schools. They also argue that the law discriminates against low-income people, including immigrants.

Not all immigrants feel that way, though.

Alicia Partida, who moved to Nevada 12 years ago from Mexico, has two kids who go to public elementary schools in Las Vegas. She wants them out.

Speaking in Spanish, she said her children’s teachers are always changing — her daughter had three in the same academic year — and the classrooms are too crowded.

When Nevada passed its law promising parents like her money for private schools or home-schooling, Partida was renewed with hope. She wants to send her children to a local Christian school.

She sees the law as a chance at a better life for her children, one in which they'll attend college and avoid the violence and drugs in her neighborhood.

Nobody is arguing against Partida’s dreams. Jennifer Carr understands her frustration — she has three kids in Las Vegas public schools. But Carr is also one of the parents suing to stop Nevada’s new voucher law.

“I think we both agree that there are problems with the public schools, right?Nevada ranks 51st in the nation [including Washington, DC]. There are 50 states, we rank 51st!” said Carr. “It’s hard to get up in the morning to send your kids to public school.”

Carr also knows that Nevada ranks toward the bottom in per-pupil spending. She’d like to address that issue, not create Educational Savings Accounts, or ESAs, to provide people with money for private tuition.

“I think the problem with the ESA, it’s basically throwing up your hands and saying, ‘it’s not fixable,’ and abandoning the public school in favor of some other option,” said Carr. “But the problem is a lot of people don’t have that other option.”

Carr says that because the vouchers don’t cover the full cost of tuition at most public schools in Clark County, where Las Vegas is located.

“One of the things that we have found out through our research is that there’s only about seven schools [in Clark County] where a $5,100 voucher will actually cover full tuition,” said Sylvia Lazos, a professor at UNLV's Boyd School of Law and policy director of the group Educate Nevada Now!

She adds that the lack of affordable private schools for low-income parents is just the start of the problem.

“On top of that you have transportation. How do you get your child to school every day? And most of these schools are going to be located not where our immigrant community live,” said Lazos.

Sylvia Lazos, policy director of the group Educate Nevada Now! and a law professor at UNLV.

Jason Margolis

Perhaps 30 states have some type of school choice program, such as vouchers or ESAs. Most states impose eligibility requirements, though. Nevada does not.

Students would need to be registered for 100 days in a public school before they could access public funds for private education. Lazos and others argue that bar is too low, and that Nevada’s new law would amount to a subsidy for the rich already planning to use private schools.

“When you’re using taxpayer funds, that is for public schools,” said Lazos. “If you want to do private schools, use your private funds for that.”

More than 5,000 applications for the vouchers have been filed statewide. If the law makes it through the courts, the program could cost Clark County more than $17 million in its first year. Opponents argue that covering those costs would mean hurting already underfunded programs like English Language Learning classes.

Maybe so. But Coco Llenas, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, says it’s time to shake things up. She’s the director of a group called Nevada School Choice Partnership, which supports ESAs for private schools.

“I personally have been in Las Vegas for 18 years. And the situation in public education today is worse than 18 years ago. It’s not getting any better,” said Llenas. “Competition might be healthy for the school district. It’s healthy for anybody.”

She said children stuck in bad schools need better resources right now. 

“I haven’t given up on public schools. In an ideal world, public schools would be awesome, they would have the best teachers, they would have all the resources they need, kids would succeed, move forward,” said Llenas. “But the reality of Nevada is that it’s far from getting to that point. And while we get there, in the meantime, our children are not succeeding, and they don’t have the time until it gets right.”

The legal challenge against Nevada’s new law ismaking its way through the courts. A final resolution might not come until next spring.

From PRI's The World ©2016 PRI