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VICTOR JOECKS: Lombardo ups his school choice proposal

Gov. Joe Lombardo has beefed up his school choice proposal. That’s an improvement worth applauding, but there’s still much left to be done.

At his inaugural speech, Lombardo called expanding school choice a priority. It hasn’t seemed like it. He proposed only $50 million for Opportunity Scholarships this biennium. It’s a good program, offering businesses tax credits for donations that students use to attend private schools. In his State of the State speech, school choice received only a hurried mention rather than a stirring defense. Lombardo has made no effort to resurrect education savings accounts.

Now, Lombardo’s office says he wants Opportunity Scholarship tax credits to grow substantially in future years, rising to $100 million in the 2025-27 biennium. It would double in each of the next two bienniums, before reaching $500 million per biennium in fiscal 2032. The amount would be a percentage of education spending, so the totals probably would increase.

The governor also wants to expand eligibility. Currently, families qualify if their income doesn’t surpass 300 percent of the federal poverty line. For a family of four, that would be $90,000. Lombardo wants to bump that limit to 500 percent of the poverty line, or $150,000 for a family of four. In both cases, the income limit increases for larger families. Lombardo’s office didn’t respond when asked if he would also seek to include categories of students, such as active-duty military families or children who are in foster care, adopted or have special needs. He should.

These are positive changes. But don’t expect a transformation, given how little would be available over the next few years. The income-threshold increase probably will make many current private school families eligible. Politically, that would be important for the program’s survival and growth. It’s much harder to take away a benefit that people are accustomed to receiving.

If the funding remains vulnerable politically, however, don’t expect major investment by private schools in poor areas. It’s hard to justify spending big to start a school if the Legislature can yank students’ Opportunity Scholarships in four years.

Even with these upgrades, it’s naïve to pretend school choice supporters should be satisfied with Lombardo. For one, states around the country are proposing and passing universal school choice programs.

It would be understandable if Lombardo couldn’t get Democrats to agree to something that expansive. But he didn’t need Democratic approval to make the case to Nevadans that students would benefit from such a program.

The other problem is tactical. Lombardo needs Democrats to vote for a program their union allies hate. He already has given away his best leverage by proposing $2 billion in new education funding. To put it charitably, giving your opponents what they want is a poor negotiating strategy.

The best-case scenario that I can sketch out is that Lombardo cut a deal with Democrats before the session. He traded $2 billion in education funding now for significant future growth in Opportunity Scholarships later.

Because if he agreed to massively to boost education spending without getting school choice assurances in return, this new-and-improved plan is unlikely to pass.

Contact Victor Joecks at vjoecks@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4698. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.

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