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EduShyster: Nevada Reformer Explains that School Choice Doesn’t Help the Poor

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EduShyster interviewed Seth Rau, a prominent young reformer in Nevada, about the Silver State’s “universal choice” or “Education Savings Account” program, which gives every student $5,700 to spend in the school of their choice.

Rau is policy director for the reform organization “Nevada Succeeds.” He is an alum of Teach for America; he taught for two years in a charter school. The conservative Thomas B. Fordham named him the “Wisest Wonk” in the nation for a paper in which he said that schools should be regulated lightly, like brothels in Nevada.

Despite his sterling reform bona fides, Rau is not your typical reformer. He does not celebrate the great successes of charters and vouchers. He is honest about the flaws of both, including the ESA that was recently adopted in Nevada.

EduShyster asked where should a student with a backpack full of $5,700 go to school.

He answered that the charters in Nevada were nothing to brag about:

In Nevada, the miracle of the high-performing seats that you’re so familiar with in Massachusetts never happened. For the most part our district charter schools are strongly underperforming. There’s also been a heavy reliance on virtual charter schools. More than a quarter of the students who attend charters attend virtual schools, which have been a disaster for many kids. For example, Nevada Virtual Academy was the largest charter school in the state and had a 32.5% graduation rate in 2011-2012.

The charter sector is growing, he said, especially in suburbs where students are high-performing. The charter scores are rising because “they’re not serving students who are actually in poverty.”

When EduShyster asks about access to private schools, Rau says that those schools are for the children of the 1%. So who will benefit from the ESA-style vouchers?

Rau answers:

I’ve heard people extolling Education Savings Accounts, saying that this is going to be the great solution to poverty, but equity is not the goal of the ESA. This bill will benefit middle class and upper middle class constituencies….That’s going to be the majority of people who use the ESA program. They’ll come from our limited middle class or upper middle class who are dissatisfied with the school district or with charters for one reason or another.

I am not ready to nominate Rau to the honor roll yet, as I save that honor for champions of public education, but I happily name him the “Wisest Wonk” of the reform movement for his willingness to tell the truth about the poor performance of charters and to admit that the ESA (vouchers) won’t help the majority of poor kids. If other reformers owned up to basic facts as Rau does, we would have a different conversation about education in this country.

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