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.

A girl crouches over a book on a colorful rug. Other children around her also have books on their laps.
First-graders in Las Vegas  (Julie Jacobson / AP)

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 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.)

DeVos’s record of aggressively pushing universal vouchers across the country foreshadows not only what some fear would be an approach to federal education policy that puts the focus on the public-school system, but also the potential emergence of a parallel, private one.

“Those who really want to end public education as we have it now are now poised to move on different state legislatures with ESA laws similar to Nevada,” said David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, a New Jersey group that advocates for equitable school funding and helped organize the legal case against Nevada’s voucher program.

“There’s a well-organized force that is anxious for these laws to be passed in a way that finally lets them get their hands on public-school money,” Sciarra said.

In a recent confirmation hearing, DeVos said she wouldn’t mandate vouchers as secretary, but later said she would “absolutely” support a program floated by Republican Senator Lamar Alexander to funnel billions in federal dollars to states for the purposes of creating $2,100 vouchers.

In 2009, the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy took stock of the public’s acceptance of certain school-choice priorities. Applying the concept of the “Overton window” developed by the late Mackinac scholar Joseph Overton, they found that public opinion would allow concepts such as charter schools and state-mandated curriculum. A long-term goal of unconstrained vouchers that let “parents pay for only the education they choose” was still a way off.

Since then, voucher programs that put state education money into the hands of parents have ballooned to include nearly 200,000 students nationwide, according to EdChoice.

It’s worth noting the ultimate goal on the Mackinac Center’s list: “no government schools.”