Las Vegas Sun

July 17, 2019

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Private schools worried new voucher program could put them out of business

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Senator Scott Hammond of the 77th (2013) Nevada Senatorial District.

Private school administrators are worried that a stipulation of Nevada’s comprehensive new voucher law could put them temporarily out of business.

In an email to lawmakers yesterday, Lake Mead Christian Academy founder Sue Blakeley said families are starting to withdraw their children from the private school in order to be eligible for the state’s new Education Savings Account program in January. That’s because the program is only available to families whose children have attended public school for at least 100 days. After that they can receive upwards of $5,000 in state money per year to spend on things like private school tuition, tutoring and online education.

It’s a catch-22 inherent in the law. Families with children in private schools have to withdraw them in order to receive the money, which they can then use for tuition after re-enrolling.

That creates a serious problem for the 25-year-old Henderson academy, which Blakeley said has historically served low-income families. Some of those families are now scrambling to receive the funds to spend on tuition later — but every kid that leaves means less money for the school right now. She said it could force the academy to scale back considerably or possibly shut down.

“We’re going to have to figure out how to weather a 100-day storm,” said Blakeley. “It will be very problematic if we have an exodus of families next semester. We’re going to have to let staff go.”

Blakeley is a huge supporter of the new voucher bill, but said the 100-day requirement could endanger many private schools in the valley. She said her school was on track to have its highest enrollment ever this year, but due to students leaving it’s likely they won’t even reach last year’s levels.

“Most private schools do not have the funding to operate for the next six months without enrolling the number of students that our budgets are built on,” Blakeley said in her email to lawmakers.

Private school administrators said they raised that concern in spring during a Q&A session with Republican Senator Scott Hammond, the primary sponsor of the law. But Hammond said today that the 100-day requirement can’t be changed.

He also said that new private schools opening up could be a factor in some families’ decision to leave.

“What’s happening right now is competition,” he said. “I’m not sure how much of the student drain on the private schools is due to the 100-day requirement.”

Hammond said the concerns would be addressed by the treasurer’s office as they work this summer to draw up the regulations for the program.

"These guys are dealing with something that is brand new,” he said. “I'm not going to fault them for being concerned."

Not every private school is feeling the burn, though. Faith Lutheran, one of the largest private schools in the valley, hasn’t seen any families withdraw yet, according to CEO Steven Buuck.

“But it’s a deep concern,” he said. “If the word gets out, we could potentially lose [students].”

That may not be as big an issue for Faith Lutheran, which offers middle and high school in a relatively wealthy part of town.

Buuck said it could be a different story for Nevada’s K-12 private schools. Low-income families whose children attend private school from kindergarten through high school have a much greater incentive to leave now to claim the state money than parents with children who have only a few years of school remaining.

“I do feel sorry for the smaller schools,” he said. “They’re going to lose a ton of money.”

Private school officials will have a chance to voice their concerns about the program in an upcoming public hearing, which will be held at 9 a.m. July 17 in the Grant Sawyer Building.

Read the text of Blakeley's email below.

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