Nevada LegislatureSocial Justice

Who’s Vouching for What: Governor’s ESA Voucher Bill Gets Heard at Nevada Legislature

For weeks, Governor Brian Sandoval (R) and Nevada Legislature Democratic leaders have sparred over funding his controversial voucher program, Education Savings Accounts. Then, at 3:00 PM yesterday, the two budget committees announced a joint hearing on Sandoval’s voucher bill. Why did this hearing happen, and how might the Legislature reshape this voucher program?

We dig deeper below.

After weeks of stalemate in Carson City, SB 506 returned to the forefront of the action in “the Building” this month. Sandoval and key officials entered into negotiations with Democratic leaders over a compromise to scale back the ESA voucher program that Republicans pushed on party-line votes in 2015. Republican leaders balked over Democrats’ proposal to cut voucher funding, then Sandoval demanded more funding than his original $60 million request, and the nascent deal fell apart over the weekend.

So why did SB 506 get a last-minute hearing last night?

Sandoval began using his veto pen to deliver an ultimatum: Give me my ESA vouchers, or I’ll kill your bills. Democratic leaders responded by scheduling a hearing… And reworking their offer into the amendment they revealed at the hearing.

Democrats’ SB 506 amendment closely mirrors AB 165 from 2015. This is the other 2015 voucher bill that created the Opportunity Scholarship program. It’s a state scholarship fund that collects private donations for students in need. Assembly Member Justin Watkins (D-Enterprise), a self-described “Democrat who supports ESA’s”, presented this amendment as a compromise based on another of Sandoval’s programs.

“SB 506 as is won’t have the bipartisan support it needs to get to the Governor’s desk.”
– Assembly Member Justin Watkins

Not only does Watkins’  SB 506 amendment set a hard $15 million per year cap on ESA voucher tax credits, but it also has the means test and sliding scale that Senator Patricia Farley (NP-Summerlin South) told us she wanted to apply to ESA vouchers back in March. Farley then said, “There need to be caps. Students in poor performing schools need to be in the front of the line.” Last night, Watkins used his own household as an example of why ESA vouchers must be targeted for poorer students. “I have school choice. I have the means to move into any zip code I want to. […] It doesn’t offend my sensibilities [that] I’d get less money for ESA [than a student in need].”

Later in the hearing, ESA voucher opponents made it clear that they appreciated the amendment and the work by the Democrats and Watkins, but that under no circumstances could any public money be used to fund ESA vouchers. Battle Born Progress Executive Director Annette Magnus described the amendment as a step forward over the original bill. “We support the concept of no public money going to private schools.”

Photo by Andrew Davey

Nevada State Education Association’s (NSEA) Chris Daly further illustrated his point when he delivered over 3,500 hand-signed letters opposing any use of public funds to subsidize private schools.

“Every dollar spent on a private school voucher is a dollar lost on public schools.” – Chris Daly, NSEA

As testimony continued, voucher opponents further explained why they find Sandoval’s version of SB 506 unacceptable. ACLU of Nevada’s Holly Welborn explained how “unlike Nevada’s public schools, private schools can exclude” students from different religious backgrounds, LGBTQI* students, and students with disabilities. They alluded to Mountain View Christian School and other private parochial schools that engage in discriminatory practices, seek ESA voucher funds, and refuse to enforce Hailee’s Law or participate in other anti-bullying programs that Nevada public schools have. (SB 225 was recently amended to merely make participation optional for private schools.)

Governor Sandoval’s Chief of Staff, Mike Willden, and Senior Policy Analyst, Andrew Clinger, tried to defend SB 506 as originally written. Assembly Member Olivia Diaz (D-Las Vegas), herself a public school educator, asked why public schools and teachers must adhere to a laundry list of accountability rules, but not these private schools that are seeking public funds. She also questioned the true cost of Sandoval’s version of SB 506, as it creates new state positions and requires more outsourcing for auditing and other services.

“I’m trying to wrap my brain around this scheme. […] Where’s the hammer? Where’s the accountability?”
– Assembly Member Olivia Diaz (D-Las Vegas)

Later, Senator Mo Denis (D-Las Vegas) asked Willden and Clinger what the purpose of ESA vouchers truly is. “Is this bill about giving parents choices, or is it about improving public education?” Willden and Clinger claimed both, yet they couldn’t provide evidence that school vouchers actually improve student performance.

Photo by Andrew Davey

It’s unclear where the voucher bill now stands. SB 506 must pass committee tomorrow. Democratic leaders are signaling their amendment is their best and final offer. Sandoval and Republican leaders have yet to commit to striking a deal on these terms. They all have one more day to agree to something, or else the ESA voucher program finally dies and “the road to Sine Die” becomes a whole lot less clear.

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