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Nevada’s ESA program faces uncertain future in Democratic-controlled Legislature

With Democrats regaining control of the state Legislature, the Republican-backed education savings account program appears to face a rocky road ahead.

If the Legislature finds another way to fund the controversial program, which sets up state-funded savings accounts for parents who opt their child out of the public school system, it could take off.

Yet that could prove a challenge, what with a majority of Democrats elected in both the Assembly and the Senate.

The program, which Gov. Brian Sandoval signed into law last year, provides roughly $5,100 each year for students who seek education outside the public school system.

The law drew opposition from Democrats and teachers unions, who have argued that it siphons badly needed funds away from an already drained system.

The state Supreme Court struck down the law’s funding mechanism in September, taking issue with the diversion of money from the state distributive school account to pay for the program.

Teachers unions have pumped over $80,000 into Democratic campaigns this year, likely preparing for an upcoming legislative session that could address the program and a variety of other educational issues.

But education savings accounts are an issue that Republicans won’t let go of easily.

“ESAs will be a priority for Senate Republicans this coming legislative session,” said current Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson. “I am confident they will be funded.”

About 8,000 applications were received through the summer, and the money necessary for those accounts would be at least $40.8 million.

Sen. Scott Hammond, the Las Vegas Republican who crafted the bill, said he’s very confident lawmakers can sit down and find a way to fund the program.

“I think Democrats have to realize that there are over 8,000 families in the state of Nevada who want to take advantage of this,” he said. “I really think that if they take a look at that, I think that they’ll find a way to make sure that that happens.”

Assemblyman Jason Frierson, D-Las Vegas, who last week was named Assembly speaker, said it’s premature to come to a conclusion about Democrats’ position on the matter.

“I think there’s some concerns, some valid points on both sides,” he said. “You want to provide families with options, but you want to make sure that those that are most struggling can access that as well.”

Incoming Education Committee Chair Sen. Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, said he can’t comment yet on where the program might go.

But he said the state is already underfunding public education and argued that taking away money from any pool to fund the program would still be taking it away from public schools.

“I don’t support taking any money away from public education,” he said.

Beyond party lines, a projected $400 million state budget deficit could also pose a problem.

Unions that opposed the savings program contributed to a number of Democratic campaigns this election.

The Nevada State Education Association gave over $38,000 to Democratic candidates this year.

President Ruben Murrillo said the group is looking to work with any legislator who promotes public education.

“We’re looking for people to invest in public education and not to divest funds,” he said.

Digging for other state money to pay for the program likely won’t gain traction with union groups, either.

“We want to make sure that if there’s any money that’s found, it would go to our public school system to support the students that are currently in there,” Murrillo said.

The Clark County Education Association also chipped in $45,000 to Democratic campaigns.

Executive Director John Vellardita said the union’s support went to candidates with an understanding that they wouldn’t engage in gridlock.

“Our concern is there’s going to be some very tough issues, and unless there’s some bipartisan effort, there won’t be accomplishments,” he said.

Review-Journal staff writer Sean Whaley contributed to this report. Contact Amelia Pak-Harvey at 702-383-4630 or apak-harvey@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AmeliaPakHarvey on Twitter.

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