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STEVE SEBELIUS: Governing isn’t drugs; you can’t just say no

Gov. Joe Lombardo is pro-choice, in case you didn’t know.

Pro-school choice, that is.

And he opened the door to a compromise on that thorny issue last week, during an event at Mountain View Christian School in Las Vegas.

Lombardo’s omnibus education reform bill — Assembly Bill 400 — would expand the money available for Opportunity Scholarships from the current $6.6 million per fiscal year to about $27 million. Figures would rise from there until it’s about 5 percent of the state education budget.

But, Lombardo said, there’s room for compromise: “You know what, if it has to be incremental, it needs to be incremental, and we will continue to address it as years go by,” the governor told reporters at the event. “We don’t have to have the answer all at once.”

Then again, Democrats seem to have their answer all at once: No.

For Democrats, the issue is simple: We should fund public schools with public dollars, and any dollar diverted to a private school is one less dollar available for public education in the state. And because Nevada’s most serious obligation is to educate the next generation, the system can ill afford to lose even a single dollar, much less 27 million of them.

Under Opportunity Scholarships, businesses donate money that can be used at private schools, in exchange for a credit against their payroll taxes. That money — which otherwise would have gone to the state — won’t come to the public purse.

But it does go for a state-sanctioned purpose. The Nevada Constitution says the Legislature “shall encourage by all suitable means the promotion of intellectual, literary, scientific, mining, mechanical, agricultural and moral improvements.”

And we know from the 2016 Nevada Supreme Court case of Schwartz v. Lopez that the public school system is but one of the ways the state carries out its education obligation.

Plus, the program is far less problematic than the last big school choice idea, Education Savings Accounts. In that 2015 plan, approved by a Republican-majority Legislature, education funds were transferred into “private” accounts for parents to use as they saw fit, whether for tuition, books or other expenses. That plan was ultimately put on hold by the Supreme Court, which ruled that taking money from the school fund made it unconstitutional. (It could have been funded from another account, however.) But Democrats — who hated the idea — refused to fund it and ultimately repealed the entire thing.

Unlike Education Savings Accounts, Opportunity Scholarships are means-tested; only students at 300 percent of the federal poverty line currently qualify, although Lombardo’s bill wants to increase that to 500 percent.

With Lombardo willing to compromise, Democrats have an opportunity, although most don’t see it that way. After all, they control both houses of the Legislature, so why would they agree to accept even a portion of something they see as an assault on the concept of public education at all?

Two reasons.

First, Lombardo is governor, whether Democrats like it or not. Although they swept most offices in the 2022 election, they lost the governor’s mansion because Nevada Republicans — in a break with recent tradition — nominated a candidate who could win. Elections have consequences, or so they say.

Two, many parents are clamoring for change, largely because of the well-publicized failures of the Clark County School District, where the focus is often on petty power battles rather than student outcomes.

Last week, the district started a feud with the Smith Center for the Performing Arts by kicking off its own education awards, a rival to the center’s long-running and popular Heart of Education Awards. And district officials used an official email account to send out an unsubtle attack on a bill pending in the Legislature, not about school policy, but rather about adding four appointed members to the dysfunctional school board. Priorities.)

Lombardo has already put $2 billion into education. So what’s the harm in at least having a discussion with the governor over his plans for school choice, and see if there just might be areas where Democrats can compromise to get things they want that Lombardo might hate? There’s not a lot of time left in the session, but there’s a huge backlog of bills in legislative committees awaiting action before the session ends in three weeks. (As of Friday, the governor had signed only six bills, including the bill to pay for the session itself.)

It never hurts to ask, and with a Democrat-controlled Legislature and Republican in the governor’s office, it’s actually an essential part of the process.

Contact Steve Sebelius at SSebelius@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0253. Follow @SteveSebelius on Twitter.

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