Children suffer when legislators vote partisan

How would you feel about paying more in taxes to subsidize families who already send their children to private or religious schools instead of their neighborhood public schools?

Specifically, how would you feel about funding the tab for that “choice” in Nevada, to the tune of about $200 million?

It’s not a very appealing idea in a state with a chronic allergy to taxes. The 2015 Legislature had no appetite to add $200 million more to the budget to pay for children who have already left the public school system. Instead, legislators wrote a significant enrollment disincentive into our new, broadest-in-the-nation school choice law which gives families around $5,000 per child in state revenue when they choose a private school over a public school.

You see, there’s a catch. They can only get the money if their children enroll in public school for 100 days first.

Republican lawmakers figured wealthy families who were already paying private school tuition would never agree to disrupt their children’s education by yanking them from their privileged classroom for three months just to collect $5,000 from the state.

They were wrong.

Private school parents filled hearing rooms this summer to bitterly complain about the 100-day rule. They demanded to know why a parent who hasn’t previously chosen private school can collect the cash instead of the families who have already demonstrated their commitment to private school education by funding it themselves. Wealthy families want our money.

Everyone agrees the 100-day rule is ridiculously disruptive. Public schools are already overcrowded and aren’t anxious for an influx of new students whose families have previously shunned public education. Private schools are complaining about losing those students for 100 days this fall and warning their doors might not be open when the families return, taking along $5,000 of your money and mine.

So why did state Sen. Scott Hammond—a public school teacher in his non-legislative life—agree to the 100-day provision? It’s obvious. Raising taxes to cover the $200 million that would be needed to underwrite children who have already exited the public school system would not be well received by the average tax-paying voter whose children attend public schools in Nevada. And raising taxes for this purpose would be especially suspect when the state constitution already forbids diverting public funds to sectarian purposes.

Hammond hasn’t done himself any favors by characterizing the problem as a “hiccup.” He says it’s the only way he could get the bill passed, and that’s likely true. I imagine he was warned what the consequences of the 100-day provision might be, but was blinded by his desire to enact such a far-reaching school choice bill. He longed to bask in the glory and attention he was sure to receive as a new darling of the national school voucher movement.

As the state treasurer writes the regulations and searches for a way to make the new law work for the wealthy parents who are demanding we subsidize their children’s private school education, there may be lawsuits filed on the constitutional question which will further muddy the situation.

Should parents be able to choose an expensive Montessori or Sage Ridge educational experience for their children? Should they be able to send their child to a Catholic or Hebrew school where they can receive religious instruction along with traditional academics? By all means.

But should the rest of us have to pay for it? Not when we’re already funding public schools through our taxes. If parents want their children to have a private school education, that’s up to them. But the rest of us shouldn’t have to pay twice, once for public schools and then again to subsidize religious education.