In The News
May 28, 2017   |  
  

The education endgame: Will the controversial ESA program finally receive funding?

This story originally appeared in The Nevada Independent on May 28, 2017. Read the original version here.

Chappelle White’s 14-year-old daughter comes home from school happy these days, chatting nonstop about her new friends, classroom activities and basketball team.

It’s a welcome relief for the single mother who hated to see her daughter, Taliyah, struggle with confidence last year. White knew something needed to change when Taliyah, then an eighth-grader in the Clark County School District, came home discouraged after a teacher embarrassed her for asking questions during class.

But White didn’t know what to tell her daughter, a soft-spoken girl who’s easily intimidated. She couldn’t just stop attending school.

“That’s not an option,” White recalls telling her daughter. “Let me see what I can do.”

Taliyah, meanwhile, decided to do her own research and stumbled upon something called an Education Savings Account — a voucher-like concept that allows families to harness state funds to pay for education-related expenses, such as private school. Nevada lawmakers approved a bill in 2015 that created ESAs, paving the way for greater school choice in the state.

It sounded like Taliyah’s ticket to a new school, so the teen wrote Republican Sen. Scott Hammond, the bill’s primary sponsor, a letter explaining her situation. When White found out, she was blown away by her daughter’s tenacity.

And so she enrolled Taliyah and her youngest daughter in Word of Life Christian Academy, a private school in northwest Las Vegas. She also applied for an ESA, hoping the state funding would offset her nearly out-of-reach tuition bill.

But the money hasn’t arrived. After hitting a legal roadblock, the program awaits a new funding mechanism. An answer could come soon: Republicans and Democrats are battling over the program’s future in the waning days of the 2017 legislative session, solidifying it as one of the most divisive issues this year.

While politicians duke it out in Carson City, White said she’s praying daily in North Las Vegas. Receiving an ESA, she said, would lift a huge financial burden and allow her daughters to remain in an educational environment where they’re thriving. The question for some groups and many Democrats is whether using public money to help Taliyah get a private education is the right policy decision.

“I think I would cry and dance at the same time,” said White, who works as a group supervisor at a youth correctional facility. “I’m tired of working six or seven days a week. I want a normal life.”

THE ENDGAME PLAYS

Democratic lawmakers started the year scoffing at Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposal to put $60 million toward ESAs, which would be enough to cover about half of the 8,600 students who have submitted preliminary applications to the program.

“Dead on arrival,” Democratic Sen. Tick Segerblom declared after Sandoval’s State of the State speech in January. “Not unless there’s a billion dollar tax increase that goes to public schools.”

Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford let Hammond’s bill to revive ESAs die without a hearing, and there were indications that an identical bill backed by Sandoval might die a similar death.

But in early May, when the governor made it clear that he was willing to go to extreme lengths and cut off all negotiations with Democrats if they didn’t engage on ESAs, the tone changed.

Since then, there have been backroom negotiations between lawmakers and Sandoval representatives, including a formal ESA working group, seeking to work out an agreement that would move the ESA program forward. Democrats indicated in recent budget hearings that there would be further discussion about funding the program, even though that public meeting has yet to happen.

Republicans balked at a lowball counter-proposal Democrats brought forward last week to the working group, which cut the amount of funding to nearly a quarter of the $60 million Sandoval proposed in his budget and barred the funds from being used to pay for religious schools. Democrats saw the offer as a starting point for negotiations, while Republicans viewed it as an unserious proposal.

Sources close to the negotiations say that with the working group dissolved, discussions are now primarily in the hands of Democratic Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson and Republican Assembly Leader Paul Anderson, who are said to be close to a compromise. Some of the thorniest issues they need to sort out are at what level the program will be funded, whether ESAs will be handed out first to applicants already in the queue and if there will be some sort of sliding scale so the individual award amount will vary based on income, disability status or another need.

But it’s a heavy political lift in the Democrat-controlled Legislature. If all Republicans vote for the ESA program, the proposal still needs the support of two members of the Democratic caucus in the Senate and seven in the Assembly to pass with a simple majority vote in both houses.

It’s an alarming situation for groups including the Nevada State Education Association teachers union, which is stridently opposed to moving public money away from public schools and is now in the fight of its life trying to keep Democrats from cutting a deal to allow the program. This week, they unveiled a PAC to support anti-ESA candidates in the 2018 cycle, sent mailers to 100,000 households and continued a brutal broadcast ad.

The teachers union says it’s keeping all options on the table and can’t see themselves supporting re-election of any lawmaker in 2018 if they vote for ESAs.

“For some reason there’s this weird culture in politics or in deliberative buildings like this where you’re sort of supposed to compromise,” said NSEA lobbyist Chris Daly. “It’s great for people to get together and work stuff out, but not on things that you hold sacred. When it comes to kids — and public education is the great equalizer, we believe it’s actually one of the main pieces of a democratic system — that you can’t compromise.”

While a good number of Democrats are dead-set against the ESAs, others are open to negotiation or are looking for guidance from their legislative leaders, who haven’t been as publicly strident against the program as they were earlier on. Proponents think that with a good enough deal, they can pick enough Democrats off to pass the bill.

“We’ve all known this from the beginning of the session — this is going to be the part of the session that’s going to get us out of session or puts us back into a special session,” Hammond said.

Republicans have leverage — the governor can veto Democratic bills or the entire budget if it doesn’t include ESAs, and Democrats don’t have enough votes to override it. There’s also Sandoval’s proposed 10 percent excise tax on recreational marijuana to benefit public education — that’s a $70 million proposition and needs Republican support to pass with the necessary two-thirds majority.

While the tax is Sandoval’s brainchild, the legislation is moving forward in a similar bill carried by Democratic Sen. Julia Ratti. Democrats could leave the session with a win for public education if they strike a deal with Republicans and get the marijuana tax passed.

Republicans believe Democrats won’t risk gutting the education budget by refusing to come to a compromise on ESAs. Sandoval appears to be in sync with the effort.

Asked Wednesday how committed he was to passing the program, he said “100 percent.” He recalled a recent visit to Faith Lutheran school in Las Vegas, where his tax credit-funded Opportunity Scholarship program has been “transformational” for students.

“It is no secret that ESAs are a big priority for me,” he said. “There’s a big demand out there for students who otherwise wouldn’t have access to that type of education. That basically reinforced how I felt about that. So yes, I am working really hard to make sure that we have ESAs.”

NSEA still thinks Democrats have the upper hand, even amid concerns that the governor would broadly veto Democratic bills if they refuse to approve ESAs.

“I think that’s terrible that he’s conflating issues that are not related,” Daly said. “Why is that OK? Why is it OK to kill a minimum wage proposal because you didn’t get an education thing that you wanted? I don’t understand why that would be on us and not on him.”

But it remains to be seen if Democrats, whose opinions on ESAs have run the gamut and even include one member — Assemblyman Justin Watkins — who supports them, will hold strong against them or will seek to extract concessions on other bills and vote for them. Their Republican colleagues have been far more unified on the matter, with all Republican senators declaring early in the session that they wouldn’t support a budget if ESAs don’t pass.

THE POLICY DEBATE

Some groups are seeking to make ESAs more attractive to Democrats, or at least offer political cover for those who may vote for the program. A group of Hispanic pastors held a press conference on Monday to promote ESAs as a way to advance immigrant families, helping to fight against a narrative that the program — which currently would include all students regardless of how wealthy their family — would be a giveaway to the rich.

Data released by the state treasurer’s office earlier this year showed heavy clusters of applicants from the Southern Nevada master-planned communities of Green Valley, Seven Hills and Summerlin, where higher-performing public schools exist. The program also received many applications from families living in the upper sections of North Las Vegas and parts of northwest and southwest Las Vegas.

Educate Nevada Now, which focuses on equity issues, has been one of the most vocal anti-ESA organizations. The group financially supported a lawsuit brought by parents who argued the program violated the constitution by diverting money from public schools.

“To be honest, I didn’t think I’d be spending two years of my life thinking about private school vouchers,” said Sylvia Lazos, ENN’s policy director.

ENN takes issue with the policy behind the voucher-style program, which Lazos said subsidizes the wealthy and lacks research about whether students actually do better academically because of ESA access. The organization instead supports full implementation of a weighted education funding formula, a concept that allots more per-pupil state dollars to public school students with extra needs but was too costly to achieve this session. ENN endorsed a scaled-back version, approved by lawmakers last week, that gives an extra $1,200 per child to the neediest students in the most underperforming schools.

The move represented a half step toward an actual weighted funding formula, Lazos said, but any green-lighting of the ESA program would be two steps backward.

The ACLU of Nevada, which leveled the other lawsuit against the proposed program, has attacked ESAs on the basis of discrimination: Why should public money go toward private schools that can exclude students based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or disabilities?

“Laws are made based on bad policy all the time,” Lazos said. “We just hope that as session closes, people will have an open mind about the choices they’re making and why certain choices are much, much more harmful than others.”

Hammond said part of the resistance may be coming because people are too fixated on its potential use for private schools and not thinking outside the box. In a world where transportation and shopping are becoming increasingly more flexible and customizable, the idea of an ESA is “futuristic,” he said.

He points to how some homeschool families are already piecing together a personalized education for their children. Perhaps there are online courses mixed with a group math lesson, swim classes at the YMCA, band class with other homeschoolers and private tutoring.

“Technology is going to drive a lot of this stuff and so I really don’t want to cut people off from having access to any kind of online services or technology that’s necessary to deliver the education,” Hammond said. “It’s not about private schools. If a private school delivers the kind of education you want for your student, that’s great. I don’t want to limit it to private schools … It’s about the customization and you have to have the ESA to do that.”

THE RURAL PERSPECTIVE

It’s not just parents, school officials and education leaders in Reno and Las Vegas anxiously watching how the ESA debate unfolds in the Legislature.

The situation has captured the attention of Paul Johnson, the chief financial officer for the White Pine County School District. Located in eastern Nevada, the rural district educates about 1,200 students in kindergarten through 12th-grade.

No private schools exist within its boundaries. But one charter school opened several years ago. The result: As students migrated to the charter school, the district’s revenue dropped by roughly $1.4 million because it wasn’t getting as much per-pupil funding from the state, Johnson said. The financial change forced the district to make staff and programming cuts, including the elimination of middle school athletics.

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Now, Johnson fears a similar situation could surface again if lawmakers approve ESAs, giving private schools an incentive to open in White Pine County.

Johnson, who attended a now-closed parochial school in Ely, insists he’s not against school choice. He simply thinks policy flaws adversely affect rural districts, which don’t have a steady flow of incoming students making up for net losses sustained by other students moving to private or charter schools.

“The method in which the state is choosing to fund charter schools and parochial schools is, in my opinion, at the expense of the school districts,” he said. “That needs to be fixed before we do any more expansion.”

The looming uncertainties have prompted the Churchill County School District to embark on a campaign to make public schools seem more attractive than private or charter options.

The campaign relies heavily on technology: Every student in fifth- through 12th-grade receives a Chromebook, said Phyllys Dowd, the rural district’s director of business services. The district also offers a virtual education program for middle and high school students.

Despite the proactive steps, Dowd said she wishes lawmakers consulted rural districts more often when weighing education policies rather than just focusing on Clark and Washoe counties.

“They’re so huge in comparison to the rest of us that I think sometimes our voices aren’t heard on any equal measure,” she said.

What might seem like a drop in the bucket to the large, urban districts could be devastating for districts that have fewer students than some Las Vegas high schools. Take, for instance, a possible public school closure.

“If we shrink any further, we’ll have to close school facilities,” Johnson said. “If you close school facilities in these small rural areas, you’re closing the one recreation place these people have.”

NEXT STEPS

With the session ending a week from Monday, time is short for ESAs.

Bills exempted from legislative deadlines because they have a financial impact on the budget — such as the ESA bill — must pass out of committee by Wednesday. Since there hasn’t yet been a hearing on the bill in either the Senate or Assembly, a joint committee including members of both houses might hear the bill together to save time.

The deal is expected to be worked out and votes confirmed before it is brought forward for a public hearing.

Not only is there pressure from a political perspective to get ESAs done, but there’s a practical aspect. An ESA deal is the first domino that needs to fall before Republican lawmakers will move on the proposal to raise taxes on recreational marijuana.

A bill to raise the recreational marijuana tax is set for a Senate vote on Monday but can be postponed. The Legislature needs to take action on it before lawmakers can approve the state’s education budget, which calls for about $70 million in pot tax revenue.

A K-12 education funding bill is the first of the five major appropriation bills the Legislature must pass before the end of the session. Once that happens, the four remaining budget implementation bills — the Appropriations Act, the Authorizations Act, the State Employee Compensation Act, and the Capital Improvement Plan Act — will fall into place.

For their part, Republicans have long expressed a willingness to hold up the process to get ESAs, even if that means sending the Legislature into a special session and staying in Carson City beyond the last day of the regular session on June 5.

“I personally don’t see myself or any of my colleagues voting for a budget that doesn’t include this,” Hammond said in a January interview. “I also hear Carson City is nice in the summertime.”