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 access to the highest-performing public schools.
For that reason it was a natural target for civil-rights groups, and lawsuits prompted judges to block the program until the state could find a different funding source. Republicans are planning to revive the program later this year, but even though it faces its Waterloo moment, Nevada’s Super Voucher has already catalyzed the creation of expansive education entitlement programs across the country.
“Nevada has become the bellwether for what [universal voucher] programs should look like around the country,” said Robert Enlow, the CEO of EdChoice, a pro-voucher advocacy group. “The program has stimulated tremendous growth in the idea.”
Months after the Nevada program was hit by lawsuits, Republicans in Arizona proposed a bill to make the Grand Canyon State’s voucher universal. The effort ultimately failed, but now other states are looking to take a chance on the idea. Passing universal vouchers can often seem like a challenging feat that isn’t worth the effort, but state lawmakers have virtually nothing to lose in trying. The presence of national advocacy groups like EdChoice that help with the heavy lifting of bill writing, lobbying, and grassroots advocacy often make school-choice legislation an easy target for politicians looking to pass bold education measures. Right now universal vouchers are on the agenda in several states including Iowa and Arkansas, and by Enlow’s count, could soon be proposed in 15 more. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump hasn’t backed down from a pledge to budget $20 billion for vouchers if states agree to commit to sweeping voucher programs.
“The current president said from the very beginning that he wants money for vouchers,” Enlow said.
A key player in these legislative efforts is DeVos, who wields political influence through the group she chairs, the American Federation for Children. While the political fight over universal vouchers raged in Nevada and Arizona, the federation quietly poured money into local pop-up groups with the mission of building grassroots support for the programs. In 2014, the federation and its affiliates spent $4.5 million on campaign contributions and advocacy in nine states. (DeVos’s confirmation as secretary remains precarious amid news that two Republican members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee will now oppose it, though she still appeals likely to get the votes she needs.)