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Education savings account expansion to be explored

The state’s top education and political leaders soon will start exploring ways to expand Nevada’s new education savings accounts, which many already consider to be the most aggressive school choice program in the country.

At a hearing Monday, the state treasurer’s office adopted regulations that extend early eligibility for the program, which allows parents to use per-pupil state funds on private school tuition and other education services, to children 5 to 7 years old, and active-duty military families.

Lawyers for the Nevada Legislature objected to the extension, prompting Republicans on Saturday to pass a nonbinding resolution in support of waiving a rule that all students must attend a public or charter school for 100 consecutive days before they can enroll in an education savings account.

The regulations now face approval from a legislative commission, which will meet before the end of year. But Treasurer Dan Schwartz on Monday indicated he will start drafting “ESA 2.0” for lawmakers to consider when they meet for a regular session in 2017.

He said changes may include allowing waivers to the 100-day rule for autistic and other special-needs children, whether to remove that requirement altogether and if Nevada “can and should” provide ways to make it easier for private school operators to open in Nevada.

“Once we get to the point next year, we’d like to call a summit — probably sometime in spring — to really address these issues,” Schwartz said.

“I know (Gov. Brian Sandoval) has education on his agenda,” he added. “I personally would encourage him to make sure what we’ve created works well before we begin to create new programs.”

The ESA program, which goes into effect Jan. 1, grants parents about $5,000 in per-pupil funding if they pull their children out of the public school system. Families can then spend that money to pay for private school, home schooling, transportation and more.

During the 2015 Legislature, a representative for the Las Vegas Sands Corp. testified in support of ESAs.

The treasurer’s office received about 4,100 applications for early enrollment in the program and will issue its first quarterly payment in February, pending a review of the program in state courts.

Earlier this year, opponents filed two lawsuits against ESAs, contending they violate provisions of the constitution that prohibit the use of public funds at religious schools and for private purposes. A Las Vegas judge is expected to rule on whether to dismiss one of the lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada.

At Monday’s hearing, Schwartz heard from citizens who already have ideas on what to include in “ESA 2.0.”

One commenter supported extending the 100-day rule waiver to children of traveling entertainers, while another hoped parents could use the ESA funds to send students abroad to study a foreign language.

As for active-duty military families, parent Bonnie Wood thanked Schwartz for including an exemption in the final regulations.

“By providing this regulation you are allowing active-duty military children to remain at one school throughout their temporary location in Nevada,” said Wood, a mother of three whose husband is stationed at Nellis Air Force Base.

“Thank you providing this gift,” she said.

The family of Sheldon Adelson, chairman and CEO of Las Vegas Sands Corp., bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal earlier this month.

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

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