Is an ESA compromise possible — with a teachers union?


It’s no secret Democrats and their traditional allies staunchly opposed Education Savings Accounts when they were proposed in 2015.

After all, the legislation became law without a single Democratic vote.

The program — which allows parents to divert a portion of the state’s per pupil funding to pay education expenses including tutoring, private school tuition or books — remains in limbo. The Nevada Supreme Court ruled Sept. 29 that funding the accounts with money from the state school’s budget is unconstitutional.

Republicans, however, hope to remedy that problem at the 2017 Legislature and get the ESA program on track. In fact, state Treasurer Dan Schwartz’s office is still taking applications for ESAs in anticipation of a fix, although Democrats have indicated the choice plan will get a cold reception in Carson City.

But at least one teacher union may not join that opposition.

During a Review-Journal editorial board Wednesday, Clark County Education Association President John Vellardita said his group wants to make further strides in education reform next session, building on the legislation passed in 2015 and not just treading water.

“We want a session of accomplishment,” Vellardita said.

To that end, Vellardita indicated that his union may not oppose efforts to resurrect ESAs, given a series of conditions. First, he said, they must be funded without raiding the state schools budget. Second, he suggested they be subjected to a means test, so that wealthy parents aren’t eligible. And third, he wants lawmakers to fully fund a formula that grants more money to certain schools — including those that serve children in poverty, those learning to speak English and those with special needs.

An association poll shows support for Vellardita’s stance. The research finds that 63 percent of people favor ESAs “as long as funding for these accounts is not taken from the state’s general education fund or decreases the overall amount of tax money available for public schools.”

On the question of a means test, 46 percent say wealthy families should be able to participate in the ESA program, while 41 percent said that was unfair.

And asked about a “compromise ESA program,” in which the accounts are funded without taking dollars from public schools; where eligibility is limited to schools at which parents already have control over hiring, budget and curriculum; and where payments to parents for homeschooling their own children are explicitly banned, 60 percent of people came out in favor while 30 percent were opposed.

And — perhaps most telling — fully 71 percent favored the idea of letting parents choose the school their child attends. Supporters of ESAs were among those most likely to favor that idea..

The bottom line? The Clark County Education Association sees the possibility of a compromise over the ESA program. The issue now becomes whether Democrats — who regained control of both houses of the Legislature in November — see the same thing.

Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford has said he’d prefer to concentrate on funding equity for Nevada schools — and Vellardita’s plan addresses that. The weighted funding formula he cited as a condition for his support is designed with that purpose in mind. But Democrats know Gov. Brian Sandoval is committed to fixing the ESA program’s legal flaws and getting it implemented. That might create an opening for a compromise plan, as well, although legislators will likely have a list of their own demands.

Either way, it’s clear that a program so many people had declared dead after the state Supreme Court’s ruling is still breathing, awaiting only a compromise that will satisfy both Democrats and Republicans. Having a teacher union on board — even reluctantly and with conditions — can serve only to prompt discussion on the subject.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.