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EDITORIAL: Inadvertently or not, Sisolak makes the case for school choice

Gov. Steve Sisolak may not realize it, but he recently embraced school choice.

Last week, Mr. Sisolak and Treasurer Zach Conine announced a new program called Transforming Opportunities for Toddlers and Students, or TOTS. It provides a $5,000 grant for children with disabilities. The money goes into a use-restricted account that families may use to pay for a range of items related to a child’s disability. This includes education expenses, such as private school tuition or tutoring.

Officials expect to distribute 1,000 grants. The state used $5 million in federal funding to pay for it.

“I am incredibly proud to launch this first-in-the-nation program to provide our children with disabilities an opportunity to recover and rebuild from this pandemic stronger than ever before,” Gov. Sisolak said in a statement.

This program may be an original, but it has noticeable similarities to something Nevada Democrats have long opposed — education savings accounts. When Republicans had legislative majorities in 2015, they passed ESAs. The program allowed parents to take a portion of the state’s per-pupil funding — originally around $5,100 — and use it on various education-related expenses, including private school tuition. Students with disabilities and low-income students would have received around $5,700.

Unlike a typical school voucher program, the funding wasn’t use it or lose it. The money would have stayed in a child’s account from year to year, just like in TOTS.

But Democrats fought ESAs viciously. After the Nevada Supreme Court ruled the program needed a technical fix regarding its funding source, Democrats, who had regained control of the Legislature, let ESAs starve to death.

During his campaign, Gov. Sisolak tweeted he would “always fight efforts” to divert public education funding to private institutions. In 2019, he even signed a bill repealing the ESA program.

Yet here is Mr. Sisolak sending government money to families who can use the resource to pay for private schools. He even noted that this will “increase their education opportunities.” State Sen. Scott Hammond, the father of ESAs, couldn’t have said it better.

Not surprisingly, the TOTS program proved immediately popular. The treasurer’s office closed the application process last Thursday after announcing TOTS just three day earlier. It received more applications than it could fund.

Gov. Sisolak is correct in noting that allowing families the freedom to tailor their children’s education to their own needs by providing funding in use-restricted accounts is a great idea. Sometimes providing less money with more flexibility is better than a more expensive but uniform option.

Gov. Sisolak has made the case for school choice. He should expand his efforts to include all students.

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