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Nevada Legislature Fails to Fund State’s Education Savings Account Program

August 8, 2017

Nevada lawmakers failed to reach a deal to fund the state’s education savings account (ESA) program, and the thousands of families who signed up for ESAs will have to wait another two years to know their fate.

Ongoing Challenges, Uncertainty

ESAs give parents access to state tax money allocated for their children’s public education, to spend on alternatives such as private school tuition, homeschooling textbooks, educational therapies, and tutoring. Nevada enacted its ESA program in 2015 and launched it in January 2016. The program is considered to be universal because students need only have attended a Nevada public school for at least 100 days to qualify.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada filed a lawsuit against the program in August 2015, alleging it violated the state constitution’s Blaine amendment, which prohibits direct state funding of sectarian schools. The Nevada Supreme Court deemed the ESA program constitutional in September 2016, but it ruled the legislature had to develop a different mechanism to fund the ESAs.

In January 2017, Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) proposed allocating $60 million to the ESA program. In June, Nevada’s legislature rejected that proposal, instead adding $20 million over the next two years to Nevada’s Opportunity Scholarship program, which gives tax credits for donations to scholarships for low-income families.

The ESA program will remain unfunded until at least 2019 because the Nevada legislature meets only every two years.

‘No Such Thing as Compromise’

Nevada Policy Research Institute Communications Director Michael Schaus says those opposed to education choice are intent on destroying their competition.

“There’s plenty of blame to be placed on the shoulders of Gov. Sandoval, who let down thousands of parents when he decided that avoiding a political battle was more important than funding the educational opportunities of thousands of Nevada children,” Schaus said. “But really, the blame must ultimately fall on the shoulders of those that stubbornly fought to preserve the abysmal status quo. The real lesson to be learned by the 2017 legislative session is that, for the opponents of educational choice, there is no such thing as compromise.”

Schaus says public school hardliners are intent on further limiting education choice.

“Behind closed doors, politicians agreed to a one-time increase of $20 million for the current tax-scholarship program as a ‘compromise’ for killing the state’s ESA program, and yet, teachers unions and the public school establishment are already vowing to make sure that program disappears by 2019,” Schaus said. “The public school establishment is so adamantly opposed to empowering parents with more choice, it is willing to forcibly withdraw scholarships from low-income children in the next legislative session, after having already killed an ESA program that had been watered down throughout the legislative session.”

‘Sandoval Did Not Fight’

Michael Chartier, director of state programs and government relations at EdChoice, says Sandoval did not do enough to get the ESA program funded.

“Many members of the Republican Assembly and Senate caucuses worked long and hard to find a compromise that would get the ESA funded while being cognizant of the new balance of power in the legislature,” Chartier said. “Ultimately, Gov. Sandoval did not fight for ESA funding on behalf of the over 9,000 children who signed up for the program, and the senate Democrats removed his $60 million appropriation from the budget.”

Chartier says the Opportunity Scholarship program is no replacement for the ESAs.

“That program has income requirements, and not everyone who qualified for an ESA will qualify for the tax-credit scholarship,” Chartier said.

‘More Motivated Than Ever’

Schaus says the continual setbacks have only increased parents’ determination to get choice for their children.

“There are roughly 10,000 families out there who are more motivated than ever,” Schaus said. “We’re talking about an army of parents ready to fight. And unlike the defenders of the status quo, these parents aren’t fighting for a special interest or a lobbying firm or a union. They’re fighting for their kids.

“Nevada was on the verge of experiencing a gold rush of educational innovation and opportunity,” Schaus said. “Sadly, because of political games and the public school establishment, parents will have to keep fighting for the ability to gain control over their children’s educational path. I have faith, however, that they will make progress. They won’t give up until choice is an absolute right for every student in the Silver State.”

Teresa Mull (tmull@heartland.orgis a research fellow in education policy at The Heartland Institute.

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Teresa Mull is the managing editor for School Reform News.
tmull@heartland.org @SchoolReform