Las Vegas Sun

August 19, 2017

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Future uncertain for Nevada tuition, school supply vouchers

The future is uncertain for a Nevada program to provide public assistance for private school tuition, textbooks, uniforms, tutors and other costs after state leaders squabbled over details and held a three-hour hearing Monday.

Democratic legislative leaders gave three hours' notice of the Legislature's first public debate on Education Savings Accounts in over two years.

The surprise timing meant Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval could not attend the hearing on his own bill to implement the 2015 program because he was at Memorial Day ceremonies in southern Nevada. After Democratic Assemblyman Justin Watkins introduced a more restrictive version of Sandoval's proposal at the hearing, several lawmakers and staff said as they left the Capitol grounds that they were far further from a deal than when they had entered morning negotiations.

The state budget and broader political negotiations could hinge on enacting the program. Democrats control the Legislature and staunchly oppose the notion of spending public dollars on education anywhere except public schools. Sandoval has veto power over their bills. And Republican lawmakers have pledged to oppose any budget that does not include funding for the program.

Parents and Republicans on one side argued that fully implementing the 2015 program could help families of meager means afford to move their children from a public school to a private, home or specialized education program.

Republican Assembly Minority Leader Paul Anderson said each of his four children learned and succeeded differently while attending a mix of public and charter schools. Parents have a precious responsibility to help their children succeed, Anderson said, which is why he wants them to have as many choices in Nevada as possible.

"I think it would be difficult and frankly unfortunate if we don't take that into consideration — that those parents ultimately should be the decision factor as to what's good for their kids," Anderson said.

Democrats and other parents argued the state wrongfully would give up most of its oversight of public dollars if they're spent at private institutions.

Democratic Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson said she was not convinced that the audits and receiver logs built into Sandoval's proposal would go far enough to ensure parents who receive the funds spend them judiciously.

Lawmakers took no immediate action on the measure.

Sandoval outlined in his January budget proposal a tax on newly legalized recreational marijuana to finance $60 million for the Education Savings Accounts over the next two years. Democratic senators were scheduled to vote on the pot tax Monday, but pulled it from consideration after the program was scheduled for a hearing — another indication the dealings came to a halt.

Roughly 10,000 people have applied for the funds, which originally would have totaled about $5,000 per child. Any negotiation to come out of the Legislature is likely to send more money to poor families.

President Donald Trump's May budget proposal calls for the federal government to spend $1.25 billion on non-public education, primarily grants for charter schools and scholarships for private school tuition.

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