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State issues guidelines for private school scholarships

The Nevada Department of Education avoided angering the private school community on Monday when it issued temporary regulations to establish a new scholarship program for students to attend private schools.

Private school operators previously criticized draft regulations which would have granted priority access to the scholarships for students currently attending a public school, which they viewed as a disadvantage to private school students from low-income households.

But in the final version of the regulations, which go into effect Wednesday, the department granted priority to children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and students who attend a public school that received the lowest rating under the state’s accountability system.

“The fact that they are giving priority based on income and the fact that we accept students from all backgrounds is very gratifying to us,” said Rabbi Moishe Rodman, who serves as principal of the private Desert Torah Academy near Charleston Boulevard and Arville Street.

“We are not a school for the rich and famous,” he added, “so this means a lot of our families will be eligible. That makes us very happy.”

In the recently closed legislative session, state lawmakers approved Assembly Bill 165 to give tax credits to businesses that donate so-called opportunity scholarships for children to attend private schools.

The bill authorizes $10.5 million in tax credits over the upcoming two-year budget cycle, though the total would increase 10 percent per year thereafter.

The scholarships, which the bill caps at $7,755 during the 2015-16 school year, must be directed to children who are members of a household with income not more than 300 percent of the poverty level.

As part of the regulation, priority access in future will be given to siblings of students already receiving a scholarship.

If more students apply than there are scholarships available, priority then is granted to the applicant from a family with a lower household income and students who attend a poorly performing public school.

At a June 18 public workshop, Rodman and other private school operators warned state Superintendent of Public Instruction Dale Erquiaga that providing priority access only to students attending public school would exclude needy families already enrolled in a private school.

Judith Kohl, general counsel and director of human resources for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Las Vegas, which operates Bishop Gorman High School and six other private schools across the valley, even predicted an “exodus” of families from private schools to public schools to secure eligibility for an opportunity scholarship.

“That sounds less possible now, to be honest,” said Rodman.

His academy serves approximately 230 students. Tuition costs $9,000 annually, though Rodman said a “significant” portion of his families receive a scholarship.

The regulation also for the first time allows the state to request academic performance records from private schools, though Erquiaga earlier this month clarified that provision applies only to the records of students receiving the Opportunity Scholarship.

“We’re under no government mandate to report before,” said Rodman, “but any school worth its salt has to do some standardized testing. We do not mind at all complying with that provision or see it as a burden.”

Contact Neal Morton at nmorton@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279. Find him on Twitter: @nealtmorton.

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