Can school grants be saved?

Gov. Sandoval’s State of the State speech painted a rosy picture for Nevada, but constitutional conservatives are concerned that his $8.1 billion proposed budget only contains $60 million for school choice.

The Educational Savings Account (ESA) program, the jewel of the 2015 Republican controlled legislature, is in danger. After surviving two separate constitutional challenges, the legislation was put on hold by the Nevada Supreme Court. The court ruled the program could not be paid for by the State Distributive School Account because it took funding from already-allocated public school moneys in violation of the Nevada Constitution.

The Republican-controlled special legislative session failed to correct this technical issue and, in November, the Democrats took over the legislature. Now, a legislative battle looms over how—or if—the ESAs will be funded.

To deny funding would be a major disappointment for the more than 8,000 parents already signed up. ESA proponents welcome that the governor has put the funding in his proposed budget, but say that it is just a start. They would like to see it doubled.

Las Vegas Democrats like new Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford and likely House speaker Jason Frierson have already expressed opposition. Northern Nevada Dems joined the chorus, with new Assembly Democratic Whip Mike Sprinkle of Sparks and Assembly Democratic Leader Teresa Benetiz-Thompson of Reno critical of using the new Commerce Tax revenue to allow parents to choose private school options. Maybe more magnet or charter schools, but private school choice for parents is not something Democrats want to allow.

Many believe the school choice movement began with libertarian economist Milton Friedman. But Friedman only revived the original classical liberal concept of education, formulated by John Stuart Mill in his 1859 essay “On Liberty.” Mill wrote the state’s only obligation was to ensure that citizens in a democracy be able to read and write in order to understand the issues of the day. Most parents naturally want what is best for their children, and most children want to learn. Mill advocated state testing for literacy, accompanied by fines for terribly negligent parents, and coupled with aid for the indigent to attend private schools—i.e vouchers—as the only state involvement. The actual state provision and control of education was to be a very last resort. The markets would provide the tools for learning the classics and the trades.

Instead the Prussian model of state-controlled education designed to mold future bureaucrats and military leaders for a strong centralized state prevailed. American progressives created the system of “free,” compulsory, state-run K-12 education that attempts to mold future Democrats or Republicans, just as Mill foretold. After decades of mediocrity and outright failure of public schools, the modern school choice movement was born. President Trump’s controversial nomination of choice activist Betsy DeVos to head the Department of Education signals school choice is now a permanent, ascendant movement.

To use a well worn progressive phrase, the Democrats are on the wrong side of history. They are champions of an outdated model of education that simply doesn’t provide good enough outcomes to justify its high costs. The dominance of the state in education helped create the PC culture Trump voters voted against. The bureaucratic imposition of “zero tolerance” and the stationing of police (school resource officers) in public schools with arrest powers alarms many parents. Even the ACLU opposes School to Prison without recognizing it is a natural outgrowth of state control.

Nevada could be America’s leading laboratory of educational experimentation. But only if the reactionary Dems can be persuaded to allow it.