Las Vegas Sun

September 27, 2021

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Recipients of private school vouchers in Nevada cling to tenuous grip on school choice

Opportunity Scholarship

Steve Marcus

Eulalia Galvan poses with her daughter Esmeralda, 11, at Gary Reese Freedom Park Tuesday, March 16, 2021. Esmeralda is a fifth grader at St. Christopher Catholic School.

Eulalia Galvan is not sure if she will be sending her daughter back to St. Christopher Catholic School in the fall.

The annual $5,250 tuition is more than the family can afford to pay, and 11-year-old Esmeralda no longer qualifies for an Opportunity Scholarship, which helped her attend fourth grade at the K-8 private school in North Las Vegas. Although the church stepped in to help with tuition this year, Galvan and her daughter are unsure about the 2021-22 school year.

Sen. Heidi Gansert, R-Reno, wants the Legislature to help people like Galvan and others by breathing life back into Nevada’s Opportunity Scholarship program. She has introduced Senate Bill 157, which would reverse some of the restrictions lawmakers made to the program in 2019 that resulted in the number of students receiving the scholarships dropping from 2,300 in 2018-19 to 1,055 children this school year.

The Opportunity Scholarship program offers tax credits to certain businesses that donate to scholarship organizations. The program was approved in the 2015 session and signed into law by then-Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican.

“We talk about educational achievement gaps and opportunity gaps amongst people of color and low-income people, this is a classic example where they are going to be disproportionately hurt greater than individuals and families who can afford to go to a private school,” Gansert said.

Families whose income doesn’t exceed 300% of the poverty level — about $75,000 for a family of four — are eligible for the program, which is regulated by the Nevada Department of Education and can provide scholarships worth $8,262 per student.

Lawmakers in 2019 gave $9.5 million to the program over two years to allow for current recipients to continue receiving aid. But they also capped the annual amount of tax credits at $6.7 million. The result was a steep decline in the number of scholarships being offered.

The Galvans reside in a part of northeast Las Vegas where the public schools rank low, and Eulalia Galvan says Esmeralda cries when the topic of switching schools comes up.

“It’s embarrassing needing aid, but every little bit helps,” Galvan said.

The program has faced issues almost from the start. It received $20 million in one-time funding approved by Sandoval and the Legislature in 2017, but it has faced steady opposition from Democratic lawmakers who say the tax credits take state funding away from the cash-strapped public school system.

Because Democrats are in control of both chambers of the Statehouse and the governor’s office, the program’s days may be numbered. Democrats don't favor school choice program, saying they take money away from the cash-strapped public schools.

Valeria Gurr, the state director for the Nevada School Choice Coalition, said she has heard from many families dismayed over the potential of their children losing aid. There were so many calls, she said, she couldn’t answer everyone.

“They’re upset,” Gurr said.

Gurr said she’s been working to get families information on their best next moves.

“They’re searching for different school options. Not just private options, but public options too,” she said.

Gansert said the events of the past year have put even more strain on low-income students.

“We want them to have more opportunities,” she said. “When you think about COVID and what’s happened with COVID over the last year, they are disproportionately impacted. The (public) schools are closed and they cannot afford to go to a private school. They have very, very few options.”

Gansert’s bill has been referred to the Senate Education Committee, which has taken no action on it.

With or without the Legislature’s intervention, Galvan is trying to find a way to fund her daughter’s private school education for next year. If she cannot re-enroll at St. Christopher, they’ll enroll her back when and if they get help.

Her daughter’s reply is simple: “No mom, I want my school.”

Ricardo Torres-Cortez contributed to this report