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December 22, 2014

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Legislators hear pros, cons of Sandoval’s school choice bill

Gov. Brian Sandoval’s bill to give tax breaks to companies that donate to private and religious schools was applauded by school choice advocates Tuesday but opposed by the state’s teachers union and school boards.

Lucas Foletta, general counsel to Sandoval, told the Senate Revenue and Economic Development Committee that this would help low-income families pay tuition to send their children to private schools.

But Dotty Merrill, representing the Nevada Association of School Boards, said the money lost through these tax breaks would mean less money for public schools.

Senate Bill 445 creates the Nevada Education Choice Scholarship Program that allows companies to donate to a scholarship fund to take a deduction from the modified business tax. The money received would help families with income less than 300 percent of the poverty level to choose a private or a religious school to cover the tuition.

And the donations could also be used to cover the expenses of home schooling.

The tax break could not exceed $5 million a year.

But the tax revenue loss is not figured into Sandoval’s budget and neither is the cost of one employee to administer the program.

Sen. Ruben Kihuen, D-Las Vegas, chairman of the committee, said if the bill clears his committee it would still have to go to the Senate Finance Committee to decide whether it should be included in the upcoming biennial budget.

Rorie Fitzpatrick, interim state superintendent of public instruction, told the committee that tax breaks are given to businesses in 14 other states that donate money for private or religious schools.

But she said it was too early to evaluate their success.

And she said this bill would not detract from the formula of the state to fund public schools.

But Sen. Debbie Smith, chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee, said these tax breaks would deplete the state’s general fund.

Other school choice advocates testified in support of the measure while Craig Stevens of the Nevada State Education Association voiced opposition.

This story has been edited to correct Sen. Debbie Smith’s name.

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