Last week I wrote about failure and its often-circuitous route to success. I mentioned the struggle for growth that my publishing business experienced, but we had another example a few years ago that was much more profound in its impact.
We make no secret of the fact that as an organization we support education reform. In its current definition, this basically means supporting more charter schools. Only a few reformers have gone so far as to advocate full voucher programs, where parents are basically refunded their property taxes to use for any educational purpose they wish.
In 2015 Nevada officially earned the title of the nation’s most radical reformer when its State Legislature approved a full-scale voucher program. Arizona and Florida had adopted some of the same measures but limited their vouchers to special education kids, Native Americans, or the children of active-duty military parents.
Not Nevada. It opened the floodgates and said, “Come one, come all.” Didn’t matter what color your skin was or how much money you made – if you wanted a voucher for your child, you got one. This essentially put $7,000 in your pocket to pay for private school, religious school, or specialized tutoring services (like ours).
In short, it was the real deal. No fine print, no exceptions. That it was passed at all was a minor miracle, but Governor Brian Sandoval signed the Education Savings Account (ESA) bill into law in May of 2015.
Needless to say, we were very excited. This represented a HUGE opportunity for us. We could compete with public, private, and parochial schools for taxpayer dollars – a true free market. We sprang into action. I immediately started the ball rolling to get our Nevada business license ($1,500), registered agent ($250), and upgrade to our liability insurance required by the law ($350). I made several trips to Carson City and Las Vegas to speak with the Treasurer’s Office (they were in charge of vendor registration) and to start interviewing part-time instructors to teach our curriculum in Vegas and Reno.
No sooner had the ink dried on the law, however, than the usual suspects began to threaten lawsuits. The ACLU and Nevada teachers’ union immediately asked for an injunction to stop the law’s implementation. It was granted within two months. No worries, we thought, either the injunction will be dismissed or the law will be referred to the State Supreme Court. We counted on a favorable ruling from the justices in Carson City, and so continued with our preparations to begin operating in the state as soon as they rendered a verdict.
The Nevada Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in January 2016, putting it on a “fast-track”, which meant the case would probably be heard that summer. If worse came to worst, we were also confident that an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court would come out in our favor too since it had ruled (narrowly) in a Cleveland voucher case that State Legislatures had the last word on education policy. It is a state issue, funded mostly by state income and local property taxes, to be decided by each state's duly elected representatives.
Our confidence was justified. In October 2016 the Nevada Supreme Court ruled in favor of vouchers. The law was legal and constitutional – hallelujah!
Not so fast. The next month elections to the State Legislature were held and Democrats won control of the Assembly and the Senate. They immediately repealed the law. No more vouchers. After hundreds of man-hours and thousands of dollars, we came away with nothing. It was all for naught.
But maybe we did get one thing from it – the wisdom that comes from bitter experience. And here’s what we learned. For one thing, the law did have a major weakness – it did not specifically serve the poor. The CEO of MGM Resorts makes about $7.5 million a year in total compensation. If he has school-age kids, he would be getting the same amount of voucher money from the State of Nevada as one of his housekeepers, who makes about $29,000 a year. If both their kids went to Bishop Gorman (generally regarded as the finest high school in the state at a cost of $12,700 a year), the CEO could easily write a check for the difference between his voucher and the total tuition cost. The housekeeper, on the other hand, would need to come up with an extra $5,000.
Not so easy for her to do. So in retrospect, maybe the lawmakers should have included a salary cap? For example: no one with an annual household income above $50,000 would be eligible for a voucher. This might have been an easier pill to swallow for conservative or reform-minded Democrats who were open to some kind of relief measure for kids stuck in Nevada’s lousy public schools (they generally share the label for “nation’s worst” with Mississippi and New Mexico).
Naturally, opponents of vouchers were ecstatic and went back to playing the only string they have left on their banjo: give us more money. But more money for what? What makes them think more money will do anything other than reinforce failure?
Granted, the law wasn’t perfect, but we were ready to show what we could do; ready to provide our services to anyone who needed them. In fact, we had made the worst schools in Las Vegas our priority. Put us in coach!
Instead, before we could even receive the kickoff, the referee blew his whistle and sent us back to the locker rooms. We never even got a chance to prove ourselves.
And P.S. – canceling my Nevada business license cost another $150. I wonder if the ACLU will pay for that?