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