One of the initiatives Governor Brian Sandoval set forth in his State of the State speech was giving tax credits to businesses who contribute to a scholarship fund.
The fund aims to help low-income students afford costly tuition at private or religious schools. Assembly Bill 165 was discussed in the Assembly Education Committee last week, and is receiving wide Republican support. A similar proposal died in the 2013 legislature, which was controlled by Democrats.
Dale Erquiaga, the Superintendent of Public Instruction at the State Department of Education, told KNPR’s State of Nevada that under the proposal most of the money would stay in the education system it would just be allocated differently.
The pool of money would be capped at $10 million a year for the first year and be limited to grow by 10 percent per year after that.
Under the current proposal, the money would be reserved for families living at 300 percent of the poverty line, which equals about $70,000 a year for a family of four.
Similar programs have been adopted by 14 other states, including Arizona.
Robin Hiller, the executive director of Network for Public Education, said the bill in Arizona had similar income caps but when it was implemented the scholarships still ended up going to students from middle-class families.
“The biggest number of people using the scholarships are making above $50,000,” Hiller said.
The Nevada State Education Association was skeptical of the bill, and sent a letter to the committee expressing concern over accountability and the level of funding allocated for public education to meet the state’s education policy.
According to the association, the impact of the bill on the general fund and eligibility issues are two of its biggest problems with the proposal.
But Erquiaga takes issue with the idea that it is money being siphoned away from needy public schools.
“The general fund pays for many things. So I don’t like this characterization that it is money taken away from public education,” Erquiaga said. “You can’t draw a direct line to money taken away from public education.”
Other opponents of scholarship tax credit programs say that private schools are not as accountable to state education standards, and also claim it violates the separation of church and state.
Tax credit programs provide an alternative to school voucher programs, and supporters say they actually save the state money because annual tuition at a private school is typically less than the per-pupil cost at public schools. Nevada has typically been one of the worst-ranked states in the nation for per-pupil spending, sitting at nearly 20 percent lower than the national average.
Hiller pointed out that in Arizona the scholarships create a huge inequity in funding because only 4 to 5 percent of students get access to $142 million in the scholarship fund.
Erquiaga defends the idea because of the choice it gives parents and students.
“They want an exit from their traditional districts or even charter schools. They have no access to private schools and this bill would give them access,” Erquiaga said, “Families want choice.”
He also believes it will bring more private schools to rural parts of the state, which are currently underserved by private schools.
However, former education reporter for the Las Vegas Sun, Emily Richmond, questions who will win, who will lose and who will be held accountable, if the opportunity scholarships are put in place.
“Are there enough seats available and enough tuition waived that it is going to have a meaningful impact rather than it being just a symbolic exercise,” Richmond said.
She is also concerned about the drain of the best and brightest students and parents from struggling schools.
“Is that going to be a deficit to local public schools that we’re going to be drawing away families that might actually boost achievement simply by their presence?” Richmond asked.
Hiller added studies of similar programs in other states show moving to a private school has not led to improved performance by students.
If the bill is approved, Erquiaga said it would impact approximately 2,000 students a year, which would mean about a 10 percent increase for private schools around the state.
Dale Erquiaga, superintendent, Nevada Department of Education
Robin Hiller, executive director, Network for Public Education
Emily Richmond, former education reporter, Las Vegas Sun
Dale Erquiaga, superintendent, Nevada Department of Education; Robin Hiller, executive director, Network for Public Education; Emily Richmond, former education reporter, Las Vegas Sun
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