(U.S. Department of Education photo, CC by 2.0)
The debate on educational voucher programs is poised for a comeback in Nevada this year, following the filing of two proposed ballot measures that would establish one by 2025. Those efforts are already facing legal challenges from the same opponents that successfully fought a similar voucher program passed by a Republican-controlled legislature in 2015. But if the Education Freedom for Nevada PAC can fend those off, they may be able to push the issue in front of legislators and/or voters next year.
While educational voucher programs can be structured in several ways, they all essentially take public funding that would go toward a traditional school district or charter school and divert it toward private school tuition.
Proponents of vouchers consider it part of the broader “school choice” movement and say it allows children to attend schools that they might otherwise not be able to afford. Opponents counter that voucher programs are inequitable and typically only benefit those who could already afford private schools.
So what does the private school landscape look like in Nevada? How accessible are they to the average family? Here’s an overview.
Enrollment hasn’t changed much
Total K-12 private school enrollment in Nevada is 20,893 in the 2021-22 academic year, according to data compiled by the Nevada Department of Education. For comparison, that’s just under one-third of total enrollment of Washoe County School District, which has 66,541 public school students.
Nearly 500,000 students are enrolled in Nevada public schools.
Private school enrollment grew by 1.08% in 2021 compared to the previous year. Over the past decade, private school enrollment rate has remained relatively flat, fluctuating by less than 2% in either direction each year since 2012.
The majority of private school students -- 80% or 16,761 students -- are enrolled at institutions located in Clark County. Private schools in Washoe County enroll 3,162 students, or 15% of the statewide private school enrollment total.
Private schools in Churchill, Douglas, Elko, Lyon and Nye counties, as well as Carson City, enroll fewer than 1,000 students combined. Ten rural counties in Nevada have no private schools located in them.
Nevada does not require private schools to report demographic data beyond gender and grade level.
There are approximately 150 private schools across the state; 86 of them are in Southern Nevada.
Tuition varies by tens of thousands of dollars
The cost to attend a private school ranges dramatically by institution and sometimes grade level. The Current reviewed the tuition information available on the websites of 53 private schools in Clark County for the 2021-22 or 2022-23 academic year. We found tuition rates for full-day kindergarten through 12th grade ranged from $4,320 at Redeemer Lutheran Elementary School on the east side to $30,380 at The Meadows School, the private institution co-founded by Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman.
Most private schools come with costs beyond their base tuition rate. This can include initial application fees and annual re-enrollment fees, textbook and supply fees, required uniforms, extracurricular club or sports costs, technology fees, security fees, and even an “outdoors adventure” fee at one school.
Some private schools offer tuition assistance or discounts. Institutions run by churches sometimes charge reduced tuition rates for verified members of their congregation. Many private schools offer a discount for having more than one child enrolled or for paying annual tuition upfront rather than in monthly installments. At least one private school charges different rates for Nevada residents and non-residents. Another offers a discount for students of public school district teachers and law enforcement.
One analysis of private school tuition in Clark and Washoe counties in 2017 found only a handful of institutions charged rates lower than the amount of money that would be provided for a student from the 2015 voucher program. For their children to attend the majority of private schools, parents would have to make up a difference that could range from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars. That would be on top of the non-tuition fees and required expenses.
The same appears to be true of the newly proposed voucher program. Of the 53 private schools reviewed by the Current, only a dozen charged rates equal to what the proposed voucher program would offer parents, and most of those that did were affiliated with religious institutions.
They are not evenly distributed across county
Private schools in Clark County are concentrated on the west and southeast sides of the valley.
For example, one four-mile stretch of Summerlin includes five private schools -- the Merryhill School Summerlin, Adelson Educational Campus, Shenker Academy, The Meadows School and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School. That’s more than the entirety of North Las Vegas, which has four private schools located within its boundaries -- St. Christopher Catholic School, University Baptist Academy, Cristo Rey St. Viator and Alexander MLK KinderCare -- only one of which offers only kindergarten.
Enterprise, which makes up much of the fast-growing southwest valley, has just three private schools -- Desert Valley Preparatory Academy, Challenger School Desert Hills and Good Samaritan Christian Academy. Only one of the three schools offers middle and high school grade levels.
Sunrise Manor, which makes up much of the east side, has just one private school within its boundaries -- Redeemer Lutheran Elementary School. With an annual tuition rate of $4,320 tuition, Redeemer was the most affordable private school the Current could find, but notably the school reported to the state having an enrollment of just four students.
Children are not required to live near a private school in order to enroll. But proximity is no doubt a common factor considered by parents, especially those who are lower income and may have less reliable transportation options. Private schools are not required to offer transportation for students.
State requirements differ
Like public schools, private schools in Nevada must provide the same number of days of instruction (180) and the same number of minutes per day, as well as “at least the curriculum required of public schools,” according to the DOE.
Nevada requires private schools to be licensed by the state. Two types of categorizations exist: private exempt schools and private schools. Exempt schools are “those connected to a church or ministry, another government agency or a fraternal/benevolent entity.”
Qualifications for teachers at private schools also differ from public schools. Traditional public school districts are required to hire only licensed teachers. However, due to a longstanding teacher shortage many have to rely on long-term substitutes who may not have a full teaching license. Charter schools, which are considered public because they receive state and federal funding and cannot charge tuition, are supposed to have faculty that are at least 80% licensed. However, the state provides charters with significant leeway that leads to some schools having high percentages of unlicensed teachers.
Private school teachers must meet one of three requirements. They can hold a teacher’s license issued by Nevada or another state in the U.S. They can have a bachelor’s degree in a field related to their subject and three years of verified full-time or supervised experience in teaching. Or they can hold a relevant master’s degree and one year of verified full-time or supervised experience teaching.
Two-thirds of the teachers working at private schools in Nevada are within an exempt private school, according to NDOE. Exempt private schools are not required to report their teacher qualifications to the state, which means they are largely unknown to the public.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to remove a reference to tuition rates at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School, which were incorrect.
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