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July 16, 2018

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The Legislature:

What’s next for Education Savings Accounts in Nevada?

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Christopher DeVargas

Students at Kay Carl Elementary School read during their library time, Friday May 13, 2016.

Some opponents of Education Savings Accounts say Nevada’s version of school choice is dead. But the Legislature continues to discuss the program’s budget, and two new bills — meant to shore up the ESA program — are anticipated to be introduced before mid-March.

The program, the first of its kind nationwide to be passed that doesn’t limit applicants based on income, would deposit upward of $5,100 in state education funds into a bank account to be used by approved families for private school tuition, tutoring and other expenses. The program was put on hold last year after the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that ESA funding couldn't come from the state school budget, but supporters are hoping to resolve lingering issues and revive it.

The two bills, one from the governor’s office and the other from state Sen. Scott Hammond, R-Las Vegas, who introduced the program in a bill in 2015, are still being written, and more hearings have yet to be scheduled.

During those hearings, ESAs will likely face the same two major points of criticism they’ve received in the two formal hearings already held to examine the budget of the program, which is administered by the Nevada Treasurer’s Office.

First, say foes of the program, ESAs are simply a handout to wealthy people. And second, they say, ESAs hurt education by diverting much-needed money, students and attention away from the public school system.

“What (the ESA program) really is, is a way to make private schools cheaper for wealthy people, for rich people,” said Ruben Murillo Jr., president of the Nevada State Education Association (NSEA), the union that represents teachers in Nevada.

Murillo and other NSEA representatives on Feb. 21 addressed the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, which was examining the budget of the ESA program. Along with benefiting the rich, union officials said, ESAs will divert funds from the public school system where they’re badly needed.

“Taking this money away from our public schools will only damage the quality and caliber of the academic program that a school will be able to provide,” said Tom Wellman at the same hearing.

Wellman, president of the union’s retiree program, was a teacher in Clark County for 32 years. By reducing funding for public schools, the ESA program could “increase class sizes and eliminate rigorous and challenging courses and may even eliminate valuable extracurricular programs,” he said.

However, critics face two hurdles when they argue ESAs help the rich and take money from public schools. The first is the support for ESAs from parents who claim they are not millionaires.

During the ESA budget hearings, at least a dozen parents spoke in favor of ESAs, even though the money would not be enough to fully fund tuition at some private schools.

During the Feb. 21 hearing, Claudia Galvan, a mother of three, said she lives in a zone with a low-performing school. She takes her kids to a charter school half the day and home-schools them the rest of the time.

Galvan had been taking her children to a private school but had to pull them out because of the expense. “ESAs mean an opportunity for people like us who dream of a better future,” she said.

As currently structured, the program will give more money to parents who earn less than 185 percent of federally designated poverty level. But any parent can apply regardless of income.

During an invitation-only, pro-ESA workshop hosted by Nevada Treasurer Dan Schwartz, who has been a vocal supporter of ESAs and whose office administers the program, several parents said they did not want to see any limits put on who can apply.

“It should be universal,” said one parent at the workshop. “If you’re doing well … and you have access to a great career, I don’t think you should be penalized. I’m a low-income parent. But I have goals. I’m working hard. So if an opportunity comes along and I’m doing well, it should be the same. You shouldn’t be penalized because you make more.”

The second hurdle critics of ESAs face is a Nevada Supreme Court ruling that said, while ESAs can exist, money appropriated for the public school system cannot be used to fund them.

While at first that ruling may seem to favor ESA opponents, both Hammond and the governor’s office are writing bills that seek to ensure the new version of ESAs respects that ruling.

“Obviously, one difference is the Supreme Court of the state of Nevada said the original funding mechanism does not work,” Hammond said, comparing the new bill he’s drafting to his original version. “What we’re doing is creating an account, a separate silo of money so that $60 million (the amount the governor budgeted for ESAs) will go in there. We’re not touching any public school money.”

Next Steps

Hammond says the bill he is drafting is currently with the Legislative Counsel Bureau, the agency that supports lawmakers, helping them research and draft legislation.

Once the Legislative Counsel Bureau is done with it, Hammond said, he will review it and then work with other senators and members of the Assembly who support it to make any last-minute changes. Then, he’ll submit it as a bill draft, after which the Senate will likely refer it to a committee where the debate over its merits will occur.

“Mid-March is a hopeful time for that and reasonable,” Hammond said. The governor’s version could be ready for debate by then as well, he added.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported state Sen. Hammond's district. | (March 8, 2017)

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