If the first legislative skirmish over Education Savings Accounts is any indication, compromise on the controversial reform is a long way off.
On Thursday, a routine budget hearing erupted into discord as state lawmakers accused Treasurer Dan Schwartz of exceeding his mandate on programs, including ESAs.
The ESA proposal would deposit the state’s share of per-pupil funding into an account parents could draw down for educational expenses, including tuition at private schools. It’s been stalled after the Nevada Supreme Court ruled lawmakers improperly used public school money to fund it.
Lawmakers of both parties said Schwartz had disobeyed their wishes. They said he failed to provide them with demographic information about the program and hired a public-information officer to speak to the media, a budget request lawmakers rejected in 2015.
Schwartz, who is in charge of administering the program, has become a fervent advocate of ESAs. He criticized Gov. Brian Sandoval for not including a legislative fix for ESAs during last year’s special session, when the Legislature still had a GOP majority, and for not allocating enough money in his budget for the plan.
If Schwartz isn’t careful, he’ll love the program to death. Even Reno Republican Sen. Ben Kieckhefer allowed, “I like this program. But you can’t spit in the Legislature’s face and expect a warm handshake in return.”
Progressives continue to assail the plan’s merits. I‘ve argued that sending state money — even state money under the direction of parents — to religious private schools violates the state constitution. But the Nevada Supreme Court rejected most constitutional attacks on ESAs, and since it’s emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is, we all have to live with that conclusion.
To that end, the Legislature could take a few actions that might make the program more workable.
• Deadlines to apply. An open-ended ESA program is impossible to manage because the Legislature meets only once every other year to approve budgets. Schwartz recently suggested two annual deadlines by which parents must submit applications in order to get funds. An annual deadline might work better, so public schools and lawmakers have sufficient notice about the impact of the program on budgets.
• Budget caps. The state has limited resources, and the Supreme Court’s ruling effectively walls off the state’s education budget from ESAs. The state can’t have an open-ended commitment to the program, so lawmakers need to establish a budget limit in any bill to fix ESAs.
• Means testing. One of the criticisms of ESAs has come after an analysis showed a large percentage of applicants come from affluent suburbs. Yes, wealthy people are taxpayers, too. But ESAs were sold on the idea that less wealthy families stuck in underperforming urban schools should have a chance to choose alternatives. The Legislature can effectuate that intent by establishing a means test for the use of ESAs, or limiting the program to students who attend schools that currently receive unsatisfactory ratings or those who have special needs.
These compromises won’t satisfy everyone — many progressives believe every dollar allocated to ESAs is a dollar that could have and should have been directed to the state’s public schools in the first place. And many conservatives believe that every single person who applies for an ESA has the right to take advantage of the program.
But since the courts have essentially provided a road map to the successful implementation of ESAs, the Legislature has a chance to craft a reasonable compromise. Whether lawmakers will do so is still far from certain.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.