At an education forum Tuesday night, Nevada Republicans issued a warning to their base: School choice policies will be difficult to pass if Democrats control both the state legislature and the governorship.
It’s a rallying cry that works equally well for the Democrats, and it highlights the growing partisanship of education politics, especially at the state level and especially especially surrounding school choice.
“School choice” is a political phrase that encompasses several educational reforms, including charter schools and voucher and scholarship programs that provide money parents can use to help defray the costs of tuition or fees at charters or private schools.
During the 2015 legislative session, Nevada Republicans controlled the legislature and the governorship and were able to pass a series of education policy changes, including a universal education savings account (ESA) program that was regarded by school-choice advocates as the broadest in the nation. Its funding mechanism was found to be unconstitutional by the Nevada Supreme Court.
Democrats regained control of the legislature for the 2017 legislative session, making it difficult for Republicans to reestablish funding for the ESA program. The session ended with zero dollars going toward ESAs but $20 million toward the Nevada Opportunity Scholarships, another program established by Republicans during the 2015 session.
Now, Democrat Steve Sisolak has a shot at replacing outgoing Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval. If that happens, and if the Democrats retain their majority hold, then the status of ESAs and Opportunity Scholarships will look even bleaker.
“I am afraid that ($20 million) will not get renewed,” said state Sen. Michael Roberson, who is currently running for lieutenant governor against Democrat Kate Marshall. “Kids will be thrown out of schools. We need to elect pro-school choice candidates.”
Republican gubernatorial candidate and Attorney General Adam Laxalt spoke at the forum about his education platform, which calls for increased funding of Opportunity Scholarships, establishing a funding mechanism for ESAs and making it easier to open charter schools. He dismissed the idea that supporting school choice is synonymous with with hating traditional public school districts.
“We have to demand more of our system,” said Laxalt. “It’s an all-of-the-above approach.”
Laxalt said he supports creating a program to help incentivize high school graduates to pursue careers in education. He added he is inspired by military academies that provide free education in exchange for a certain number of years in service.
In addition to Laxalt and Roberson, federal candidates Cresent Hardy and Danny Tarkanian also spoke at the forum. Hardy is running against Democrat Steven Horsford to replace Democrat Ruben Kihuen in Congressional District 4. Tarkanian is running against Democrat Susie Lee in Congressional District 3. That district is currently represented by Jacky Rosen, who is challenging Republican Dean Heller for his U.S. Senate seat.
Hardy and Tarkanian spoke about howschool choice issues might be handled at the national level. Both expressed support for fewer top-down mandates and more state control over federal education funds.
Tarkanian said he would like to see ESAs funded with federal dollars. He also said he believes one of the biggest issues facing the Clark County School District is the number of students enrolled who don’t speak English.
“We can better CCSD through competition,” he added. “They’ll have to rise.”
Hardy similarly expressed faith in the idea that school choice policies foster innovation and quality through competition. States are supposed to compete, he said, and so too should schools. Hardy also criticized the size of CCSD — the fifth largest district in the country — saying it comes with bloated central administration and wasted dollars.
He added, “Most schools are their own district — principal, vice principal, teachers, parents. We need to look at shrinking the district. Every school is unique.”
Before Tuesday’s forum, the Nevada Democratic Party released a statement criticizing the rally, which they characterize as an effort to privatize education. Their statement, attributed to spokesperson Michael Soneff, reads: “Nevada Democrats are united behind our public school students, teachers and parents, and are committed to protecting public education in the face of this attack. Taking money out of our public school system through vouchers isn’t going to help make Nevada’s schools better. Hardy, Laxalt, Tarkanian and Roberson are once again putting special interests ahead of Nevadans, and their out-of-touch policies will be rejected by the voters.”
Early voting starts Saturday, October 20. Election Day is Tuesday, November 6.