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Is This Nevada Family's School Choice a Lesson for California?

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The Emery family relaxes in the family room of their Carson City home. Parents Melanie and Nick turned to a Christian private school after a frustrating experience at their local public school. (Gabriel Salcedo/KQED )

This story is part of our series "Trump Ed," exploring how President Trump's proposed federal education policies could impact California schools. The series was produced in collaboration with reporters from KPBS, KPCC and CALmatters.

Private school feels out of reach for many Californians -- but what if a nonprofit organization offered to foot the bill?

Some states already do this through tax credit scholarships, an approach President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos want to make accessible to families across the country.

In California, however, the state Legislature has rejected tax credit scholarships, saying it hurts public schools and violates the separation of church and state.

One of California’s neighboring states -- Nevada -- has adopted this option.

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The Emery family is one of hundreds of families receiving these special grants.

“I never ever thought my children would go to a private school. We just always thought they would go to their public school,” says Melanie Emery.

The Emerys live in Carson City, the state’s rural capital about 30 miles east of Lake Tahoe. Their three children -- Nevaeh, 8, Grace, 6, and Josiah, 3 -- are adopted.

Nick Emery plays around with his oldest daughter Nevaeh, 8, at their Carson City home. She's one of three adopted children in the Emery household.
Nick Emery plays around with his oldest daughter Nevaeh, 8, at their Carson City home. She's one of three adopted children in the Emery household. (Gabriel Salcedo/KQED)

Like many families, Melanie and her husband, Nick Emery, turned to their neighborhood public school when it came time to enroll their oldest daughter in kindergarten.

But Melanie says it just didn't feel right.

“I just knew in my heart that this was not a fit for our daughter,” she recalls.

Nevada public schools are among the lowest-performing in the nation, and many underperforming schools are located in rural communities.

Melanie recalls there were nearly 40 kids in each class at the local campus.

She says teachers didn’t seem properly trained, classwork wasn’t challenging and she didn’t feel a sense of school community.

"I was just so worried about her," she says.

Nevaeh Emery briefly attended a local public school in Carson City before her parents decided it wasn't the best fit for her needs. She now attends a private Christian school using a tax credit scholarship. (Gabriel Salcedo/KQED)

The family’s request to transfer to another school was denied, and the next school district was about 50 miles away.

“We felt trapped,” Nick Emery says. “That can’t be our reality. That can’t be their reality.”

In desperation, they turned to what’s called a tax credit scholarship -- a school choice option offered in 16 other states, including Florida and Arizona.

To be clear, these special scholarships are not school vouchers, which often get mired in legal challenges because they’re funded through taxpayer money.

Tax credit scholarships are made up of private donations.

Individuals and businesses donate to nonprofits that specialize in these grants and, in return, get sizable tax breaks. Families looking for public school alternatives apply for these scholarships and, if selected, can use them at certain private schools.

Nevada adopted this school choice option about two years ago, following a public outcry for more options.

But these tax credit scholarships are controversial.

Nevaeh Emery, 8, plays the piano in the family room of her Carson City home. She is one of three adopted children in the Emery household. (Gabriel Salcedo/KQED)

California is one of 37 states that have a statute written into their constitutions that prohibits the use of public dollars going to religious causes -- for example, parochial school tuition.

Critics in the Golden State also say these scholarships are a workaround to school vouchers, but that they have the same effect: Take students and money away from local public schools.

They say these grants don’t necessarily get to the kids who need them the most, because often there's no income threshold, so low-income families sometimes compete with middle-class families.

Also, private tax credit scholarships don’t always cover the full cost of tuition, leaving families in a precarious position from year to year.

For the Emery family, tuition at the private Christian school Nevaeh and Grace now attend costs roughly $10,000 combined, which is fully covered by the tax credit scholarships they received this year.

Melanie Emery hugs her two adopted daughters Grace, 6 (left) and Nevaeh, 8 (right). Roughly $10,000 in private school tuition is now covered for both daughters under a school choice option offered by Nevada. (Gabriel Salcedo/KQED)

Melanie and Nick say they could not afford that on his meager salary as a pastor, which is why they’re thankful Nevada and other states do give families the option and resources to make this choice.

"There are people across the nation who also believe in equipping families to make the best choice, and it’s a movement," Nick says. "People are rising up and saying, 'We want to do what’s best in every community, every neighborhood, and for every person.' "

They say their daughters' new school has helped the girls overcome social and emotional problems stemming from early experiences with their birth parents.

“It feels more like a family,” Melanie says. “As far as testing goes, it does test head-and-shoulders above the other schools.”

“Yet it’s still teaching to the same standards that are required of the public schools,” Nick adds. “The teachers have found a way to make it work, and to make it work well.”

At this point, it’s unclear how the Trump administration could force a tax credit system on every state.

If that happens, most educators in California say they’ll fight back.

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