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EDITORIAL: Democrats need to support Lombardo’s education reforms

Nevadans elected Gov. Joe Lombardo to, among other things, improve the state’s education system. They’ll soon find out how likely that is to happen.

On Wednesday, the Assembly Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to hear Assembly Bill 400, the governor’s omnibus education bill. The headline provision is an increase in Opportunity Scholarships, which allow businesses to receive a tax credit for donations to scholarship-granting organizations. Those scholarships help lower-income students pay for private school tuition. This year, the maximum amount of tax credits available was under $6.7 million.

Under Gov. Lombardo’s proposal, funding would grow to $50 million this biennium, equivalent to just 0.5 percent of the state education fund. Within a decade, the percentage of education funding available for tax credit scholarships would grow to 5 percent. He would also increase family eligibility from 300 percent of the poverty line to 500 percent.

This would still be a far cry from the universal programs other states have approved. Two of Nevada’s neighbors, Arizona and Utah, are among the states that now have universal school choice. But Gov. Lombardo’s proposal would be an improvement over the status quo.

There has been agreement this session that public education dollars have been poorly spent. Legislative Democrats demanded to know how schools would spend an expected $2 billion increase in funding. The Clark County Education Association has been rhetorically slapping at how Superintendent Jesus Jara spends money. For his part, Mr. Jara is fighting the union’s efforts to block bonuses to attract teachers to low-performing schools.

The most important thing here isn’t parsing who’s right and wrong in each dispute. It’s realizing the continued dysfunction in Nevada’s traditional public schools hurts students. School choice is a much-needed escape valve. Democrats should put aside their adherence to union dogma and prioritize helping students.

Gov. Lombardo wants a host of other common sense changes, too. That includes open zoning for traditional public schools. If a high-performing public school has space, it should be able to bring in more students. The governor would allow a city or county to sponsor a charter school. North Las Vegas created the Southern Nevada Urban Micro Academy during the pandemic, and it produced stunningly good results. The bill would re-establish Read by Three, although the details on retention need strengthening.

One concern is that the bill would limit the authority of school organizational teams to manage their schools’ budgets. “Use it or lose it” is a terrible budgeting mandate.

Overall, though, Gov. Lombardo has proposed much-needed and popular reforms. Democrats should work with him to refine and pass this important legislation.

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