School choice

The 2017 Nevada Legislature threw the educational futures of Nevada children under the school bus.

Despite assurances from Educational Savings Account architect Assemblymember John Hambrick, backed up by promises from Governor Sandoval, when the legislative dust cleared, there was still no funding for school choice. Although the ESA statute is still on the books, it will not be implemented in Nevada anytime soon—and probably never.

Interestingly, the legislative battle involved backroom deals over a proposed 10 percent increase to the recreational marijuana sales tax. The Senate voted 12-9 for the tax, but it required a two-thirds vote—thank you, Jim Gibbons—so it failed. Republicans had a bill to fund ESA by $60 million. Senate Democratic leader Aaron Ford was adamant he needed the pot tax to “plug holes in the budget,” so Republicans hoped to horse trade support for their ESA bill in return for approving the tax.

However, the second vote for the grass tax also failed 12-9 without a deal. A recess was called and then, somehow, the Democrats formed a quorum and voted 12-0 to move the $60 million for the voucher program to cover the alleged holes in the budget. It is unclear where Republicans were when this happened.

Then the ball was in the governor’s court, and he double dribbled. He had promised that he would not sign a budget unless ESA funding was included, but faced with vetoing the budget and putting the financing for new capital improvements in jeopardy, Sandoval signed away ESA.

Sandoval has been praised for being responsible for avoiding a budget battle. The bottom line is that Republicans walked away from the children of Nevada’s future—twice. The first time was when multibillionaire casino magnate and über-Republican donor Sheldon Adelson wanted a special legislative session last fall to approve a room tax hike to fund his new toy, the Las Vegas Raiders. Because of a technical error in the funding mechanism for ESA that the Nevada Supreme Court said had to be corrected to implement school choice, many wanted the ESA funding correction dealt with in the special session as well. After all, the session would be composed of the Republican majority that voted for the bill in the first place. Instead, Sandoval insisted the September 2016 session take up only the Adelson room tax and a vote on allowing a public security tax increase in Clark County.

When the November election reverted control of the legislature to the Democrats, I predicted ESA was dead. Although State Treasurer Dan Schwartz kept taking the applications for the ESA funds from parents desperate to take their children out of the failing public schools, the brave words of hopeful Nevada Republicans turned to dust this June 5.

The Democrats won the power game, and Senator Ford is being touted for his “strong leadership,” so we can expect to see a lot more of him. The Democrats crowed that their victory meant that “public dollars will be kept in public schools.” The Democratic Party is feeling very good about its chances in 2018.

The Republicans are facing disappointed grassroots activists like James Smack of Fallon, who posted on Facebook asking “When can we start, as Republicans, actually electing governors and legislators with a spine? Might as well call us the jellyfish party!”

The Nevada Policy Research Institute bemoaned the lost opportunity for the children of Nevada. “We were on the verge of seeing a gold rush of innovation flood the state with universal ESAs. Now, we’ve taken a giant step back toward the tried-and-failed status quo,” NPRI communications director Michael Schaus said.