Gov. Joe Lombardo reads to students in Carson City during Nevada Reading Week in March 2023 (Photo: Governor’s Twitter)
Ramping up the state’s private school voucher program to $250 million in funding annually. Allowing cities and municipalities to sponsor their own charter schools. Providing grant funding for charters to help with transportation costs.
Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo’s Assembly Bill 400 attempts to make good on his campaign promises to make “school choice” a priority of his administration. But Democrats on the Assembly Ways and Means Committee during a four-hour long bill hearing Wednesday made it clear that the path to passage is likely to be difficult.
Lombardo’s proposal, which he has dubbed the Education Achievement, Opportunity, and Accountability Act, would fund Nevada’s Opportunity Scholarship program at $50 million for the upcoming biennium and then increase that funding amount until it maxes out at around $500 million per biennium starting in 2031. The funding would be in the form of tax credits.
The existing funding level for the program is $6.66 million annually.
“How do we as a legislature justify to our constituents that we’re making the choice to take tax money and instead of putting it in the chronically underfunded public education we’re going to use it to fund private schools?” asked Assembly Speaker Steve Yeager. “How do we justify that choice unless, and until, we have adequately funded public education in the state?”
Lombardo Chief of Staff Ben Kieckhefer, who presented the bill, responded: “The answer to your constituents is that you trust them and you’re not funding public schools, you’re not funding private schools, you’re funding their children’s education and giving them the opportunity to choose the educational environment best suited for their child.”
Yeager seemed unconvinced, saying the state “could do both” but “ought not to.”
“I would just love to give (public schools) a chance to be adequately funded before we start having the conversation of sending state tax dollars to private schools,” he said. “We’ll probably just agree to disagree on this one.”
Yeager’s comments echoed the sentiment he and Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro shared after Lombardo’s January state-of-the-state when he first proposed increasing funding for the private school vouchers.
Cannizzaro at the time called it “a nonstarter for myself and my caucus.”
Lombardo’s proposal would also expand eligibility for the Opportunity Scholarships, moving the income requirement from 300% of the federal poverty line to 500%. For context: A family of four with an annual household income around $83,000 is considered to be at 300% of the poverty line, while a family of four with an annual household income of $150,000 is 500%.
Kieckhefer said the intent is to allow the scholarship to be accessible to middle income, working class families.
Democratic lawmakers expressed concerns about using public money to fund religious education and private schools’ ability to deny entry to students.
In addition to a massive expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship program, Lombardo’s omnibus education bill also establishes a grant program for charter schools that wish to offer transportation to students. Charter schools are not required to offer transportation like school districts are. Some people believe that is a significant contributor to equity issues at charter schools.
The bill would also allow cities and counties to sponsor their own charter schools. Currently, the State Public Charter School Authority sponsors the vast majority of charter schools operating in the state. Public school districts, colleges and universities are also authorized to sponsor charter schools, though only a handful have.
Henderson Mayor Michelle Romero and North Las Vegas Mayor Pamela Goynes-Brown both spoke in support of the bill and expressed interest in potentially becoming an authorizer of charter schools.
School districts would also be required to have “open zoning,” which was described as giving parents or guardians the option of enrolling at their non-zoned school if there is space available at a different school.
The 95-page bill does not just cover policies that fall under the umbrella known as “school choice.” It also includes provisions designed to address teacher shortages and early childhood education.
Most controversial among those provisions is Lombardo’s proposal to restore parts of Read by Grade 3 that the Democratically controlled legislature had removed in recent sessions. Specifically, the governor wants to restore a requirement that students who do not meet literacy standards in third grade be held back. Less controversial were proposals to fund early childhood literacy programs and scholarships for future teachers.
Assembly Ways and Means Chair Daniele Monroe Moreno. D-Las Vegas, said she saw “good parts” of the bill but said she wished the governor’s energy was less focused on private schools.
“If this governor can find extra money in the general fund to put this program together, then I wish we could work together to put the extra general fund money in our public school education, for our educators to raise their salaries, for our teachers to have the resources in their classroom so they can succeed, and really work to have success with our youth because they are our future. That is our first responsibility as public servants.”
Monroe Moreno added that she briefly attended a private school.
“As a little Black girl at that private school I didn’t fit in,” she said. “I went back to the public school where teachers saw in me something they didn’t see in me at the private school.”
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