Lombardo pushes expansion of quasi-voucher program during Christian private school event
Gov. Joe Lombardo at Mountain View Christian School. The private school quasi-voucher program Lombardo wants to expand overwhelmingly benefits religious private schools.(Photo: April Corbin Girnus)
With less than a month left in the legislative session, pressure is mounting on Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo to make good on his promise to secure “a record amount of funding” for the state’s existing quasi school voucher program from the Democratic Legislature.
The first-term governor’s office received an icy reception from members of the majority party when presenting its omnibus education bill, Assembly Bill 400, in late April. And comments made by Democratic legislative leaders since have been similarly dismissive about the possibility of expanding the state program known as Opportunity Scholarships.
“We have not adequately funded public education in this state,” said Assembly Speaker Steve Yeager during a press conference last week. “We’ve never done it in my lifetime. I don’t know if we’ve ever done it… And until we get to the point where we adequately fund public education, I think we do a disservice not only to Nevada students but to teachers and faculty to talk about diverting that money.”
When asked Monday how far apart his administration and Democratic legislative leaders are on the issue of Opportunity Scholarships, Lombardo responded that he didn’t know.
“I’ve been given the opportunity to have a conversation,” he said. “We haven’t had the opportunity to just say ‘where are we at.’ Hopefully we’re going to achieve that this week because we’re running out of time, as you know.”
Lombardo seemed to acknowledge that his education platform is ambitious and not likely to be adopted in totality.
“If it has to be incremental, it needs to be incremental, and we will continue to address it as years come. We don’t have to have the answers all at once.”
Lombardo made his comments during a press event at Mountain View Christian School, a central Las Vegas private school where a third of the approximately 200 students enrolled are receiving an Opportunity Scholarship. At the event, the governor listened as students and parents shared stories about how the scholarship has changed their lives for the better.
Many of the students spoke about their negative experiences at traditional public schools and the academic and emotional improvements that happened after they moved to the small private school where they are able to get more focused attention. Many also expressed the importance to them of having an education that incorporates their religious beliefs.
They thanked Lombardo for prioritizing the issue in his administration.
“The reality is we’ve been fighting in this state for a long time,” said Valeria Gurr of the Nevada School Choice Coalition. “The most needed communities in this state are participating in this program, and you have to be defended every single session.”
Who benefits from Opportunity Scholarships?
Opportunity Scholarships — or the Nevada Educational Choice Scholarship Program, as it is known formally — have been a battleground issue for lawmakers in recent legislative sessions.
Lombardo’s massive expansion of the program would happen by tying funding levels to a percentage of the state’s Education Stabilization Fund. AB 400 would raise the funding from $6.66 million annually to an initial $50 million in the upcoming biennium, before climbing to a projected $500 million in 2031.
Similar to a private school voucher program, the Opportunity Scholarship program assists parents or guardians with the cost of private school tuition. But rather than having money coming directly from the government, as it would in a typical voucher program, it is instead offered and doled out by scholarship programs setup by businesses, which are incentivized by the ability to receive a 100% tax credit toward the state’s modified business tax.
Six Opportunity Scholarship programs are currently in operation, and they provided scholarships to 1,402 students this academic year.
The program is currently limited by law to families with an annual household income that is not more than 300% of the federal poverty level. That’s equivalent to around $83,000 for a family of four.
But the actual average household income of scholarship recipients is significantly lower, according to the program’s most recent annual report.
The AAA Scholarship Foundation program, which awarded $5.5 million to 877 students this school year, reported its recipients had an average household income of $57,843. The second largest program, Silver State Scholarships, reported an average household income of $55,115. SSS awarded $2.3 million to 485 students.
The highest scholarship amount given was $8,729. Most get thousands less than that.
AAA reported an average award of $5,949; SSS reported $4,331.
Lombardo in AB 400 has proposed expanding availability to families within 500% of the federal poverty line. For a family of four, that’s around $150,000.
Opportunity Scholarships overwhelmingly benefit religious private schools. Secular private school students make up less than 5% of pupils receiving Opportunity Scholarships, according to a review done by the Current of scholarship data reported to the Nevada Department of Education.
The top five schools with the most Opportunity Scholarship recipients are all associated with religious institutions: Desert Torah Academy, Awaken Christian Academy, Lake Mead Christian Academy, Faith Lutheran Middle & High School, and Yeshiva Day School. All five private schools have 90 or more students who are receiving assistance from the program, and all five received more than $200,000 in scholarship money for those students during this academic year.
Only one of those schools charges tuition low enough for the Opportunity Scholarship to possibly cover completely, but only for kindergarten through fifth grade students. Awaken Christian charges between $7,950 and $9,595, depending on grade level, according to its website. But, as is the case with most private schools, there are also enrollment, tech and activity fees on top of tuition that drive the price up.
Tuition at Lake Mead Christian ranges from $9,105 to $11,990. At Yeshiva, it ranges from $11,200 to $12,200. Desert Torah and Faith Lutheran both charge a flat $12,000 per student.
Sixteen secular private schools have received Opportunity Scholarship money, according to the NDOE report. Each has fewer than five Opportunity Scholarship students attending.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of public funding of religious entities, but many in public education and advocacy spaces remain vehemently opposed to the practice.
“They are allowed to discriminate against LGBT students, or anyone who has the wrong religion, or no religion, or ever had an abortion,” said Amanda Morgan, executive director of Educate Nevada Now, which twice has successfully derailed efforts to establish universal private school voucher programs in Nevada.
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