James Lomax knew he wanted to fly in Navy fighter jets from the first time he watched the original Top Gun movie as a seven-year-old child. It was the mid-80s and he committed then to excelling academically, eventually earning admission to the United States Naval Academy and becoming a Weapon Systems Officer (WSO) in the FA-18F Super Hornet. Lomax earned an MBA and, after leaving active duty military service, worked as an engineer supporting electronic warfare system testing for military aircraft.
When he became a father, Lomax was dissatisfied with the education options available for his own children. His young daughter was enrolled in a Las Vegas-area private preschool that had a reputation for academic excellence, but Lomax felt it was lacking in encouraging creativity and curiosity. At the same time, he noticed that the young engineers with whom he worked had stellar academic records, but also lacked critical thinking skills and a sense of personal agency.
He wanted something better for his daughters, so he decided to build it. Lomax discovered Acton Academy, a decentralized network of learner-driven private schools that reflected Lomax’s preferred educational philosophy. Acton Academy was founded more than a decade ago by Jeff and Laura Sandefer in Austin, Texas and now includes nearly 300 schools across the U.S. and around the world.
Lomax applied for and was accepted into the Acton Academy affiliate network that places a high value on entrepreneurial school leaders with accomplished and varied professional backgrounds, but he wasn’t going to be able to open his school in Nevada.
“I was not qualified to open a private school because I don’t have a teaching degree or a teacher or administrator license in the state,” Lomax told me in a recent interview.
Listen to my entire LiberatED podcast interview with Lomax:
Nevada has some of the strictest regulations on private schools in the country, making it particularly difficult to start a secular private school in the state. Individuals who want to open a non-religious private school in Nevada are required to have a state administrator’s or teacher’s license, and teachers in the school must be licensed by the state or have related education qualifications and teaching experience. Religious private schools that are operated by churches or related faith-based organizations in Nevada are exempt from these occupational licensing regulations.
Despite his MBA and a B.S. degree from the U.S. Naval Academy, as well as a prestigious career as a naval officer and flight test engineer, Lomax was prohibited from opening a secular private school in the state of Nevada due to occupational licensing regulations.
Nevada is an outlier with these licensing regulations that limit the supply of education options available to families and constrain the private education sector. Reducing restrictions on secular private schools to allow individuals like Lomax to open and operate their schools, as they can in most other states, would lead to more choices for families.
“Why do we limit private schools to only be started by licensed teachers?” asked John Tsarpalas, president of the Nevada Policy Research Institute that works to promote greater educational choice for families. “Requiring private schools to only be started by licensed teachers seems like a way to have less private schools. Is the real goal to protect the teacher union’s control over Nevada schools?”
Not only would reducing occupational licensing requirements for secular school founders catalyze the growth of more school options, it would also be aligned with the Nevada governor’s overall deregulatory vision.
“Nevada’s current regulatory structure is too often unfocused and inefficient, contains regulations that are obsolete and includes regulations that are unnecessarily onerous, thereby limiting the economic potential of the State,” wrote Governor Joe Lombardo in an executive order that he signed last month.
The governor signed an additional executive order to streamline occupational licensing, stating that “Nevada has been identified nationally as having among the nation’s most onerous occupational licensing requirements.” While that order did not address occupational licensing for school founders, it is a step in the right direction toward removing regulatory barriers that limit economic opportunity.
Occupational licensing requirements may be the biggest barrier to expanding private education options in Nevada but there are others as well. Like Iowa, Nevada has some of the most rigid school accreditation rules in the country that prevent new education models from emerging. Seat time requirements in the state also prevent flexible school schedules for private schools, despite the fact that some public school districts in Nevada have adopted a four-day school week. Reducing those barriers, as well as eliminating occupational licensing requirements, would lead to more education entrepreneurship and greater learning options for families.
As for Lomax, he is hoping that secular private schools in Nevada are granted the same occupational licensing exemptions that religiously-affiliated private schools enjoy. For now, he runs his Life Skills Acton Academy as a tutoring resource center which limits its overall reach and impact. His goal is to make learner-driven education more widely available and accessible to more local young people. “If I could put an Acton Academy in the East Side of Las Vegas in a lower-economic area, those children would thrive in this environment and with the opportunities we could provide,” said Lomax. “I want to make this type of learning more accessible to more people.”
Making it easier for education entrepreneurs like Lomax to launch their innovative schools will go a long way toward expanding that access.