Just over an hour before midnight on the penultimate day of the 2019 Legislative Session, Nevada Democrats revealed their solution to projected K-12 budget deficits and the looming threat of a teachers strike. In hopes that at least one Senate Republican will support their plan to extend a modified business tax, Democrats are now dangling funding for an almost-dead neo-voucher school choice program beloved by Republicans.
Dubbed the “Safe and Supportive Schools Act,” the amended SB 551 allocates for the biennium an additional $16.7 million for school safety efforts and $72 million for teacher pay raises. The amendment also provides $9.5 million to Opportunity Scholarships, a scholarship program that helps pay private school tuition for low-income students.
Opportunity Scholarships were introduced by Republicans during the 2015 Legislature as part of a broader “school choice” platform. Funding comes from corporate tax credits. The program was used as a bargaining chip in the final days of the 2017 Legislature.
Gov. Steve Sisolak provided no funding for the program during the upcoming budget cycle.
More than 2,000 students received Opportunity Scholarships last school year. Those students may now be in jeopardy of being unable to re-enroll in their private schools because their families cannot afford tuition. The $9.8 million put on the table by Democrats would provide just enough to continue offering scholarships to those existing recipients. It would not expand the program to any new students.
Money for SB511 comes from the extension of a payroll tax increase currently set to expire. Democrats have maintained a belief that removing the sunset clause on the modified business tax does not constitute a new tax, meaning they can approve it with a simple majority and not the two-thirds majority needed to approve new taxes. Legislative lawyers backed them on that position. However, Republicans have continued to push back and suggested legal action might be forthcoming if the Democrats attempt to pass the bill with a simple majority.
Democrats have a supermajority in the Assembly but are one lawmaker shy in the Senate.
The Clark County Education Association, the union representing the 18,000 licensed teachers within Clark County School District, has been harshly criticized by other education organizations for having endorsed Republican Keith Pickard for State Senate District 20. Pickard defeated the Democrat in the race last year by only 28 votes, and critics say cost them the supermajority needed to raise new taxes.
CCEA says it will call a strike if the 2019-2020 school year begins with any amount of budget cuts. Additional funding has been allocated to the K-12 education system but it has yet to bridge a projected gap in district budgets. Additional money from the modified business tax extension would put a significant dent in the shortfall.
According to figures released by Nevada Democrats, CCSD would receive $53 million over the next biennium with the passage of SB511. Washoe County School District would receive the second highest amount, $10.8 million. On the other end of the spectrum, Storey County School District would receive $70,000.
In the Senate Finance committee where it was introduced, the SB511 amendment passed 5-3 on party lines. State Sens. James Settelmeyer, Ben Kieckhefer and Pete Goicoechea are the three Republicans who sit on that committee.
The full Senate now has less than 24 hours to approve the amendment and send it to the Assembly for a concurrence vote.
Also coming down to the wire is what is probably the Nevada Democrats most significant piece of education legislation: SB 543, their revamped school funding formula. That bill passed the Senate 18-3 and was referred to the Assembly Ways & Means Committee on Thursday. It has since received no hearings or public movement. The Nevada Independent reported Assembly members have concerns about provisions in the bill related to how much the governor must increase the general fund contribution by each budget cycle.
That bill would not affect the upcoming budgets or operations of school districts, as the new “pupil-centered funding formula” it establishes would not kick in until the 2021-2022 biennium. However, failure to make progress on addressing the existing decades-old funding formula would no doubt be a significant blow to Democrats who have campaigned and emphasized education as a priority.