December 17, 2016 - 9:00 pm
Teacher unions and school choice — like oil and water, ammonia and bleach or toothpaste and beer — don’t typically go well together. But that may soon change in Nevada.
Thanks to a confluence of pragmatism, self interest and popular opinion, the leader of the Clark County Education Association said last week he’s open to a compromise that would advance Gov. Brian Sandoval’s Education Savings Account program.
This is a step forward that bodes well for progress at the 2017 Legislature.
“We want a session of accomplishment,” said John Vellardita, the union’s executive director. In a meeting with the Review-Journal on Wednesday, he noted that his organization’s top priority is to implement a weighted funding formula for the 2017 school year under which campuses receive additional financial support for students who present various challenges. But to achieve that goal, he revealed that the union may be willing to bend on the governor’s school choice initiative.
“ESAs are the No. 1 issue on the governor’s agenda,” he said. Couple that with the union’s emphasis on weighted funding and “nothing gets moved forward on education unless those two issues get addressed,” Mr. Vellardita said.
The Education Savings Accounts program — one of the country’s most comprehensive school choice efforts — allows parents to divert a large portion of the state’s per pupil funding into accounts that can be used for private school tuition, books, tutoring or other education-related expenses. But legal challenges have stalled implementation of the plan, which passed during the 2015 Legislature on a party-line vote with no Democratic support.
In a September decision, the Nevada Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the concept but ruled that the mechanism lawmakers used to fund the program violated the law. Crafting a fix became more difficult when Democrats regained control of both the state Assembly and Senate in the November elections. While Gov. Sandoval insists he will fight to preserve ESAs, the Legislature’s incoming Democratic leadership has been less than enthusiastic about the issue.
Mr. Vellardita’s olive branch on the matter should make it more difficult for legislative Democrats to inter the choice plan. And a recent union poll highlights the risk of any such effort.
The CCEA survey, which revealed widespread support for the education reforms passed in Carson City last year, finds the concept of school choice to be extremely popular with Nevadans. Seventy-one percent of respondents favor letting parents select which public school their child attends. As for ESAs specifically, the poll found a plurality of those surveyed in support, with particularly strong backing among parents.
“We are offering the poll as a starting point for discussion,” Mr. Vellardita said.
Means testing or tightening the rules for home-school parents could potentially be among the union’s proposals regarding ESAs. But the challenge for the governor will be to gain the necessary Democratic support while preserving the program’s integrity.
With the Clark County Education Association now “open to looking” at ESA legislation as a means of securing support for implementation of a weighted school funding formula, the chances Nevada families will eventually enjoy more educational opportunities are much improved.