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VICTOR JOECKS: Parents fighting to save Opportunity Scholarships

Updated May 21, 2019 - 10:21 pm

When public schools are failing, the education establishment cries it needs more money. When Opportunity Scholarships succeed, many of those people insist on cutting their funding.

That logical disconnect is threatening the education of hundreds of students. Those are students such as Rediat and Helina Abebaw, who attend Calvary Chapel Las Vegas thanks to Nevada’s Opportunity Scholarship program.

“I decided to apply for a scholarship, because the previous school they had didn’t (teach) good learning skills,” their mom, Almaz Nigatue, said in a video filmed by the Nevada School Choice Coalition. “I don’t have money to send them to private school. That’s why I applied to get help from the scholarship.”

“I’m learning better,” Helina said. “They’re more welcoming, and I have more friends than my previous school.”

There are many stories such as this from the 2,300 kids using Opportunity Scholarships. This program allows low-income students to receive a financial scholarship to attend the private school of their choice. The money comes from nonprofits that collect donations from businesses. The businesses receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for the Modified Business Tax.

Gov. Brian Sandoval and the Legislature created the program in 2015 with $5 million available each year in tax credits. That amount increases by 10 percent a year. In 2017, as part of a last-minute compromise, the Legislature allocated $20 million in one-time tax credits for the program. That allowed the number of participants to skyrocket from 540 in 2016 to 2,300 in 2019. More than 1,300 students are on a waiting list.

The average scholarship is $5,400. The maximum amount is $8,300. Nevada’s average per-pupil spending, not including capital costs, is $9,300. That makes Opportunity Scholarships a great deal.

Yet without legislative action, around 1,000 students will lose their scholarships when the one-time money dries up. That’s according to Valeria Gurr, director of the Nevada School Choice Coalition.

Even worse, a bill cutting funding for Opportunity Scholarships is making its way through the Legislature. Speaker Jason Frierson is sponsoring Assembly Bill 458, which would eliminate the program’s 10 percent yearly growth. It would freeze the program at $6.7 million a year. The bill has passed the Assembly.

An important subplot emerged during the May 1 meeting of the Economic Forum. The 2017 bill creating the $20 million in one-time credits also inadvertently doubled the size of the existing program. Through an amendment, Frierson’s bill also seeks to pare the program back to $6.7 million a year.

Parents and students have forcefully and frequently spoken up in defense of the program during the session. The latest example was a Sunday rally at the Grant Sawyer building.

Unfortunately, low-income children don’t have the political clout of the teachers unions, which fear competition from nonunion schools will shrink membership.

What a shame that many legislators are willing to put politics ahead of low-income children. Democrats should be expanding, not kneecapping, Opportunity Scholarships.

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

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