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Gov. Sandoval signs Nevada school choice bill

VIRGINIA CITY — Gov. Brian Sandoval sat at a wooden desk Monday in a historic, creaky classroom on the famed Comstock to sign into a law a bill enacting school choice, a measure he said was equally historic for education in Nevada.

Sandoval was joined by state lawmakers and others at the Fourth Ward School in Virginia City, where he signed Assembly Bill 165.

“This bill is going to make history, which is why I wanted to sign this bill at this school,” Sandoval said.

The law allows tax breaks for businesses that donate to a scholarship program for disadvantaged students to attend private school, including those run by religious organizations.

Assembly Bill 165 is part of the Republican governor’s ambitious education agenda winding its way through the state Legislature. The measure passed along party lines in both the Assembly and Senate.

The law establishes tax credits for businesses that donate money to the Nevada Educational Choice Scholarship Program, up to $5 million in the first year of the budget and $5.5 million in the second year. The maximum scholarship would be $7,755 per student.

“Up until this moment, we have not had true school choice in Nevada,” Sandoval said.

A second-term Republican who handily won re-election in November, Sandoval has long been an advocate for school choice, though his plans were thwarted in 2011 and 2013 by a Democratically controlled Legislature.

That changed this year, when Republicans took command of the Senate and Assembly following a “red wave” election last fall.

“Today is a day I’ve been looking forward to for a very long time,” Sandoval said.

Democrats opposed the bill, arguing it would funnel money from public schools through tax breaks to benefit private schools.

They also objected to the income threshold for student eligibility, set at 300 percent of the federal poverty level. In hearings on the bill, they expressed concerns it would help more affluent families afford private school.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, dismissed those arguments during a hearing on the bill, saying a single mother with two children earning $60,000 a year would qualify.

“That’s not wealthy,” he said.

On Monday, Roberson praised the governor.

“You have led the charge on this,” he said. “Congratulations to you.”

The governor, a lover of history, toured the four-story wooden schoolhouse before the signing ceremony. Built in 1876, it was a modern wonder in its day, with running water, toilets that flushed and circulated heating.

Fourth Ward School closed in 1936 and is now a museum. It is the only remaining school building of its kind in the United States, museum officials said.

“What a great place to bring history around,” Sandoval said.

He signed the legislation at a desk dating back to the 1800s, in a classroom with wooden plank floors and big, towering windows that offer stunning, bird-perch views of the surrounding mountains.

The building creaked and whistled as gusts of wind blew through the canyons outside.

In a downstairs classroom, Sandoval marveled at a laminated flyer attached to a child’s desk, something he said showed Nevada’s long-standing commitment to education.

“Supposing you own property assessed at $500,” the flyer reads. “Are you willing to pay fifty cents a year in increased taxes to have a modern school house in this town? If so vote YES for the school bonds.”

“Now we are standing and sitting in the very place that was approved by these voters,” Sandoval said. “Here we are … showing Nevadans’ priority with regard to education again.”

Contact Sandra Chereb at schereb@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901. Find her on Twitter: @SandraChereb

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