CARSON CITY — A scholarship program sought by Gov. Brian Sandoval that would help low-income students attend private schools, including religious schools, won approval in the Assembly on Wednesday and now heads to the Senate.
Assembly Bill 165 passed on a party-line vote, with 25 Republicans in favor and all 17 Democrats opposed.
The bill would establish tax credits for businesses that donate money to the Nevada Educational Choice Scholarship Program, up to $5 million in the first year of the budget and $5.5 million in the second year. The maximum scholarship would be $7,755 per student.
The scholarship program is a centerpiece of Sandoval’s plan to give students more choice in where they attend school.
Assemblyman David Gardner, R-Las Vegas, testified in support of the measure, saying opportunity scholarships have worked well in other states.
“This bill will give students currently in failing schools another option,” he said.
But Assemblywoman Olivia Diaz, D-North Las Vegas, said the bill will help wealthier families send their children to private schools at the expense of low-income students in her district. The bill would need to be crafted to focus more on families in poverty, she said.
The bill as written would make families below 300 percent of federal poverty guidelines eligible for a scholarship.
“I do not see choice for students in my district,” Diaz said.
After the vote, Gardner said the higher income level was included in the bill to make the program available to as many children as possible. It is a challenge for middle-class families as well to afford the $10,000 a year it costs to send a child to a private school, he said. About 72 percent of public school children could potentially be eligible for one of the scholarships.
The small number of scholarships that would be available through the bill, about 800 to 1,000, in essence makes the measure a pilot program to see how it works over the next two years, Gardner said.
“And we will be able to see,” he said. “Did it work. If so we can increase the number. We wanted it to be higher but we didn’t want to blow a hole in the budget either.”
The bill would provide the tax credits on the state’s modified business tax. The money would be donated to scholarship organizations, which could not own or operate a school. The organizations could not spend more than 5 percent of the money they received on administration. An organization could not limit grants to a single school or to specific pupils.
The bill requires only a simple majority vote to pass and is expected to win approval in the Senate as well.
It would take effect immediately if signed in to law.
Contact Sean Whaley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-687-3900. Find him on Twitter: @seanw801.