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Irony of ESA defeat: Democrats vote to expand school choice

After long insisting that Education Savings Accounts were “vouchers,” a majority of Democrats in both houses of the Nevada Legislature voted to expand a program of private-school choice that resembles vouchers in many ways. And liberal special interests groups applauded them.

It was a bizarre ending to a legislative session that held so much promise for the 8,000 students (including my child) who’d already signed up for Education Savings Accounts.

The good news that school choice expanded in Nevada shouldn’t cause you to forget what could have and should have been.

I wrote before the 2017 session, “Sandoval will determine fate of ESAs,” and that proved to be accurate. Gov. Brian Sandoval supported ESAs, but his unwillingness to do everything it took to get them passed, despite his many options to do so, left the program unfunded. He had a chance to cement a national legacy as an education-reform pioneer, and he passed. National Republicans and conservatives are beyond upset with him.

Sandoval wasn’t the only Republican who let down families eager for ESAs. At Sandoval’s Monday signing of budget bills, one legislative leader was noticeably absent: Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson. Roberson declined to attend after voting against the five budget bills in his quest to ensure ESA funding. Assembly Minority Leader Paul Anderson, R-Las Vegas, however, did attend after voting for two of the five budget bills. It was a clear sign that while Roberson did all he could to fight for ESAs, Anderson didn’t.

Republicans ended up with SB555, a $20 million, one-time expansion of Opportunity Scholarships.

Under Opportunity Scholarships, a tuition-tax-credit program, businesses receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for donations to a nonprofit scholarship granting organization that gives money to private schools as part or all of a student’s tuition. With ESAs, the government gives money to parents, who can spend the funds on a range of education options including private school tuition, tutors, online learning or curriculum.

Vouchers are direct government payments to a private school to pay for a student’s education.

If liberal groups, like Educate Nevada Now, hadn’t spent months mislabeling ESAs as “vouchers,” they may have noticed that Opportunity Scholarships look a lot like vouchers. Instead, ENN put out a news release thanking politicians for “standing strong against vouchers.”

In the final two days of session, with almost no discussion, the Senate approved SB555, 21-0, and it passed the Assembly 34-8.

There are Democrats around the country who support school choice, and getting 30 legislative Democrats on the record supporting Opportunity Scholarships is a great step forward. Let’s hope their support continues, because the low-income students who use the one-time scholarship money in 2017 and 2018 will need more funding authorized in 2019.

Victor Joecks’ column appears in the Nevada section each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Contact him at vjoecks@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4698. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.

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