CARSON CITY — It wasn’t meant to be a policy discussion, but lawmakers took an opportunity at a budget hearing Thursday to debate the future of the controversial Education Savings Account law.
Treasurer Dan Schwartz, a strong proponent of the ESA program that is in limbo due to a lack of funding, told the Senate Finance Committee that it is unacceptable that Nevada ranks last in student achievement despite spending billions of dollars on public schools.
“While I know that many of you question these accounts, I think that we agree our No. 1 priority is the education of our children.” he said. “When we talk about school choice, we’re not talking Dan Schwartz’s standards or those of school administrators, but of those who know our children best — their parents.”
Schwartz’s office would administer the ESA program, which would allow parents to receive up to $5,200 to send their children to private schools, including religious schools, if Gov. Brian Sandoval’s $60 million funding recommendation is approved by lawmakers.
Schwartz has said that the program needs $80 million or more to accommodate the demand from parents.
The discussion came during a Senate Finance hearing on the Treasurer’s Office budget.
There has been talk of imposing an income limit as part of any program that goes forward. Others argue it should be available to all parents on a first-come, first-served, basis. A new bill detailing the program has not been introduced.
Republicans support the program but Democrats were opposed when it was approved in 2015. ESAs remain stalled after the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that the funding source was unconstitutional.
Democrats now control both houses of the Legislature, but Senate Republicans have said they will not vote for any state budget that does not include ESA funding.
COMPLETED APPLICATIONS DEBATE
In the hearing, Grant Hewitt, chief of staff in the Treasurer’s Office, said that of the 8,500 applications on file, 3,200 to 3,500 are complete and “could be funded tomorrow” if money was available.
Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas, asked how there could be so many complete applications when the office recently reported only 370 were complete. He also said legislative staff has not received the details he is seeking about the income level of those applying for the program.
“We’ve been asking for this information for a year and a half,” Ford said.
The Treasurer’s Office reported late last month that two-thirds of 370 completed applications come from households making less than $50,000 a year. The number is now 400.
Hewitt said the office will continue to provide data to lawmakers, which only recently became available.
“We have no interest in hiding the football here,” he said.
Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, said ZIP code and demographic data is irrelevant at this point.
“It’s a snapshot in time of a program that hasn’t even launched yet,” he said.
STUDENT SPEAKS OUT
A number of individuals and groups submitted letters in opposition to funding the program, including University of Nevada, Reno student Marissa Coleman, who argued that ESAs would allow public funds to be directed to religious schools that discriminate against LGBT students.
Coleman, who said she is a lesbian and has identified as such since the 7th grade, was supported by her parents and friends but not her private, religious Nevada high school.
“I still suffer through subconscious homophobic prejudices and self-hatred from my experiences,” she said.
Others expressing opposition included the Nevada State Education Association and the ACLU of Nevada.
Contact Sean Whaley at email@example.com or 775-461-3820. Follow @seanw801 on Twitter.