Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro and Assembly Speaker Steve Yeager were quick to dismiss Gov. Joe Lombardo’s proposal to massively expand the state’s Opportunity Scholarships program. (Photo by Richard Bednarski/Nevada Current)
Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo is asking the Interim Finance Committee to direct $3.2 million in unallocated COVID-19 relief funds to the Nevada’s Opportunity Scholarship program. Democrats control the committee, setting up an all-too-familiar partisan battle over the controversial quasi-voucher program.
Lombardo says hundreds of K-12 students are at risk of losing the tuition assistance and could be forced to unenroll from private schools they love. Advocates for the Nevada Educational Choice Scholarship Program, as the program is officially known, claim the number of affected kids could be as high as 600.
Democrats and Lombardo are blaming each other for any shortfall in the program, which serves students from homes within 300% of the poverty level. That’s equivalent to $83,250 for a family of four.
“After Democrats struck down Governor Lombardo’s proposals to expand eligibility and increase funding for Opportunity Scholarships, our office proposed to keep Opportunity Scholarship funding flat, so that no child would lose their scholarship,” said Elizabeth Ray, spokesperson for the governor, in an email to the Current. “Democrat leadership rejected that proposal too and said that our office should be happy that they weren’t eliminating the program entirely.”
But the Democratic caucus denies they rejected any such counter proposal, saying in their own statement to the Current that the governor’s staff is “lying” about the end-of-session legislative negotiations.
“They’re rewriting history to cover their own incompetent mismanagement of the budget process that ultimately forced us into a wasteful, unnecessary special budget session,” read their statement. “The facts are as follows: As part of budget negotiations, the administration demanded $50 million for vouchers. When the Legislature rejected that demand, the governor ultimately folded without making any additional voucher proposals. Instead, his administration moved on to make requests related to charter schools, some that were accommodated and others that were not.”
During this year’s regular session, Lombardo pitched a massive expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship program. Specifically, he wanted to boost the program’s funding cap from $6.66 million each year, to $25 million each year. (He also proposed ramping up the cap further in future biennia.) Democratic legislative leaders publicly rejected the proposal, saying their priority was funding the public school system, not private schools.
Negotiations continued behind closed doors. The state legislature is not subject to open meeting laws.
By sine die, the existing $6.66 million per year amount, which is set in statute, remained unchanged. What did change was the amount of one-time money the program received.
During the 2021 legislative session, as part of a heavily negotiated mining tax deal, Democrats agreed to allocate $4.75 million in one-time money to the Opportunity Scholarship program for the 2021-23 biennium. That one-time money was not matched by the 2023 Legislature for the 2023-25 biennium, which began last month.
Lombardo now wants $3.2 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds to be redirected to the program by the Interim Finance Committee (IFC), which makes spending and budget decisions when the full Legislature is not in session.
The committee was already scheduled to meet Aug. 9.
The governor’s office is requesting funding for “at least 343 scholarships,” according to the documents filed with the IFC. The money would be given to three of the six scholarship-granting organizations: Silver State Scholarships; Student Choice Fund of Nevada, and the Injured Police Officers Fund.
The bulk of the money — $2.5 million — is being requested for Silver State Scholarships. According to the state’s most recent Opportunity Scholarship report, as of Dec. 31, 2022, midway through the last academic year, its scholarships were supporting 485 students and had awarded $1.171 million to 58 private schools.
The Injured Police Officers Fund is requesting $445,000, while the Student Choice Fund of Nevada is requesting $290,000.
According to the same state report, the Injured Police Officers Fund had paid out approximately $50,500 for 31 students at the halfway point of the last school year. While the Student Choice Fund of Nevada had paid approximately $74,000 for 76 students.
The vast majority of Opportunity Scholarship recipients attend religious private schools. That’s a point of major contention for many Democrats who don’t believe public funds should pay for nonsecular education. For example, a quarter of students who received money from Silver State Scholarships attend the same religious school — Desert Torah Academy.
According to the most recent state report, 1,402 students were receiving Opportunity Scholarships at the halfway point of last school year.
Sometimes referred to as a voucher program or quasi-voucher program, Opportunity Scholarships in Nevada are funded by tax credits, which businesses receive in exchange for donating to the scholarship programs. In previous biennia, they have been also funded through one-off allocations negotiated as part of broader budget battles between Democrats and Republicans.
The Opportunity Scholarships program was created by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2015. At its high point in 2018, approximately 2,308 students were receiving the scholarship. The number of participating students dropped by more than 700 students the following year after the program’s funding was reduced by a legislature recaptured by Democrats.
“I’ve frankly never seen the Democrats give this program a real opportunity,” said Erin Phillips of Power2Parent, which has advocated for expanding the program. “This (2023) session was the most they’ve dug their heels in. It’s such a partisan issue.”
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