- Associated Press - Friday, September 11, 2015

RENO, Nev. (AP) - Heather Cameron shows up to work every day and sits in a silent school, alone, hopeful today will be different than the last.

But no students show.

Pristine children’s books fill the shelves. Colorful posters cover the walls, perfectly level and equally spaced.

All the supplies are here, freed from Cameron’s garage where they’ve been stored for years, collected one piece at a time and stockpiled for the future Sterling Academy.

“I wanted to open a school since I was 4,” says Cameron, a 30-year-old teacher who’s worked in private and public schools from the United Kingdom to the United States, biding her time until the opportune moment. Until now, spurred by Nevada’s new school choice program offering annually repeating payments of $5,000 to Nevada students for the private school of their choosing.

“If I’m going to do it, now is the time,” she thought this summer after hearing Gov. Brian Sandoval signed the new program into state law, creating room for more private schools like hers.

The state won’t start paying students until spring 2016. However, several families committed to immediately transfer their children from other private schools into Sterling Academy, getting Cameron’s school through the fall with a starting class of six students.

But come the first day of school, none of these six children showed. They went to public school instead, Cameron heard from their parents making the same decision for the same reason.

To receive $5,000 a year from the state, students need to be enrolled in a Nevada public school 100 consecutive school days at the time of application. Money in hand, students are then free to attend private school and be paid every year for it. That means Cameron’s six missing students likely won’t return until the spring after getting their 100 days.

“That’s great, but what am I going to do till then?” says Cameron, hurt by the very program she thought would help.

Without students, Cameron won’t be able to last until spring.

Her savings filled the rooms with chairs, tables and desks. It paid the rent, she says, looking around at the commercial space between Meadowood Mall and Airway Drive in south Reno.

Proponents of Nevada’s new school choice program predicted private schools would flood the state to cash in on the $5,000 being made available to Nevada’s 400,000 public school students, if they switch to private or home school. But Sterling Academy is the only new private school to open this year in Nevada, according to the Nevada Department of Education.

‘TOO MUCH IN DOUBT’

Donna Wix, private school coordinator for the department, has received calls from only two other private schools interested in new Nevada campuses. Neither followed through, she said.

But that doesn’t mean they won’t come. To take advantage of Nevada’s new program, schools will probably wait until spring to apply for licenses and open at the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, Wix said.

Even if more schools don’t show up, Nevada’s existing private schools have space for 6,600 additional students, or a 30 percent enrollment increase, according to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. This estimate is based on the foundation’s survey recently completed by more than half of Nevada’s 152 private schools.

The state has received applications from about 2,000 students interested in taking $5,000 to leave public school, according to the Nevada State Treasurer’s Office.

Like private schools eyeing Nevada, many parents seem to also be waiting on the program to play out, according to Wix and Washoe County’s major private school operators.

Neither Sage Ridge School nor the Diocese of Reno Catholic Schools have seen changes in their enrollments. Students aren’t transferring out to get their 100 days or transferring in from public schools to prevent the disruption of switching schools later in the year when they’re paid by the state, as many conjectured would occur.

“There’s too much in doubt,” said Norman Colb, head of school for Reno’s Sage Ridge School with 220 students.

The state is still writing the program’s rules and regulations, leaving much in question for families, said Karen Barreras, superintendent of the Catholic Church’s four private schools in Washoe County and one in Carson City teaching a total of 1,700 students.

The program could be stopped altogether if the the American Civil Liberties Union wins its lawsuit filed against the state in late August. The ACLU claims the program violates the Nevada Constitution, which says, “No public funds.shall be used for sectarian purpose.” The vast majority of Nevada’s private schools are run by religious organizations.

The only way to know the program’s impact on private schools is the enrollment report that all 152 private schools must supply Wix’s office, but it’s not due until Oct. 15.

These reports have shown Nevada’s private school enrollment hovering at 20,000 students for a decade, which amounts to about 5 percent of public school enrollment, That’s half the national rate, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Nevada’s $5,000 offer could close that gap.

LOW-INCOME STUDENTS LEFT OUT

Having just quit her job at Cannan Elementary School, Cameron knows many public school students immediately eligible for the money. Many of their families want to jump on it.

But they still can’t afford private school, even at Sterling Academy, charging $10,000 in annual tuition, less than all but a couple Reno-area private schools subsidized by churches.

“We’re doing everything at minimum cost,” says Cameron, taking on the role of owner, head of school and lead teacher. “This is not about the money.”

A full 100 percent of Cannan students live in poverty, according to the Nevada Department of Education. Even if her former students found a way to afford tuition, there’s the challenge of daily transportation, Cameron said.

Cannan is far from rare in Washoe, where 19 public schools have 100 percent poverty rates. Statewide, one out of two students in public schools live in poverty, according to the Nevada Department of Education

“Private school is still nothing they can afford,” Cameron says of her former students, repeating what many critics assert: The program only brings private school within reach of middle-income families, while making it cheaper for the wealthy. This runs counter to creators’ claims that it would give choice to Nevada’s poor students.

Mary Scott and her husband earn enough money to put them slightly above the poverty line. But they’re struggling to find a way into private school for the two grandchildren they’ve raised for 13 years and sent to Las Vegas public schools.

Adding $5,000 in state assistance doesn’t get them there, even if Scott sacrifices for her grandchildren.

“They’re the cheese on my macaroni. I’d do anything for them,” says Scott, crunching the numbers every way she can imagine. “It’s just not achievable.”

Private elementary school could become affordable with state assistance, but her grandchildren are in middle and high school.

The average annual tuition of a Nevada private elementary school is $7,432, increasing to $8,543 in middle school and $10,726 in high school, according to the Friedman Foundation’s survey incorporating information from the U.S. Department of Education’s Private School Universe Survey and Nevada Department of Education.

NO TURNING BACK

A poll commissioned by the American Federation for Children shows 61 percent of Nevadans supporting the controversial program, with about half of those supporters strongly in favor of it.

Approval is highest in Washoe, where 68 percent of voters are estimated in favor, according to the poll released last week.

The question is: Who will the program benefit?

Cameron’s school won’t be around long enough to find out, unless she can find students.

“We need to have some kids by the end of November or the savings we started from will be gone,” says Cameron, realizing she may have jumped the gun. “The timing was really bad.”

But there’s no turning back now.

She’s committed, coming to school every day in her white shirt adorned with the school logo of a pixelated apple. Unable to afford advertisements, she hands out flyers at daycare centers and anywhere else that comes to mind.

“All my students are enrolled somewhere,” she says. “I just have to convince them to come here.”

___

Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal, https://www.rgj.com

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