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Education spending, school choice to top Nevada Legislature

FILE - Students head to the cafeteria for lunch at Sandy Valley School in Sandy Valley, Nev., Wednesday, March 30, 2022. Born out of a historic budget surplus and growing needs of resource-strapped schools, Nevada's biennial legislative session will feature proposals for unprecedented public k-12 funding coupled with school choice measures that mirror education debates playing out across the country. (Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun via AP, File)
Steve Marcus
/
Las Vegas Sun via AP
FILE - Students head to the cafeteria for lunch at Sandy Valley School in Sandy Valley, Nev., Wednesday, March 30, 2022. Born out of a historic budget surplus and growing needs of resource-strapped schools, Nevada's biennial legislative session will feature proposals for unprecedented public k-12 funding coupled with school choice measures that mirror education debates playing out across the country. (Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun via AP, File)

Gabe Stern/Associated Press

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — With a historic budget surplus and schools strapped for resources, Nevada’s biennial legislative session will feature proposals for unprecedented spending on public education and school choice measures.

The stakes are high as Nevada looks to craft a two-year plan to improve educational outcomes that historically have placed the state toward the bottom of national rankings.

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The debate mirrors those playing out across the country as Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo and the Democratic-controlled Legislature jockey for center stage and barter over funding levels and policy changes during the next four months.

While cautiously optimistic, Democratic Assembly Education Committee Chair Shannon Bilbray-Axelrod said many of Lombardo’s plans are still vague at the moment.

“I look forward to a robust conversation,” she said. “But the devil is always in the details."

Lombardo has acknowledged some criticism of “throwing money” at the public school system. Still, the governor said during a recent forum that funding is needed to address what he called an “aging infrastructure.” That includes improving student-teacher ratios, providing more resources for students and a proposed $30 million in scholarships for aspiring teachers, amid a shortage.

Under a new funding formula approved during former Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak's final term, much of the funding will be tailored to local school districts.

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Lombardo has insisted that the funding comes with strings attached, threatening “systemic change” in K-12 leadership if improvements aren't made.

Lombardo’s $2 billion education budget as it stands would increase per-pupil spending by about $2,000. He's also advocating to restore parts of a “Read by Grade Three” program that holds back third graders who don’t read at grade level. He wants to repeal a restorative justice law that pushes non-punitive intervention and makes it harder to expel students. Critics say it limits school officials from disciplining students who cause violence.

Lombardo will also attempt a balancing act of pushing for increased school choice with a Democratic-controlled Legislature. Traditionally opposed by teachers unions and Democrats, school choice generally refers to taxpayer-funded programs to help parents pay for other educational options including private or charter schools, home-schooling or hybrid models, although it can take many forms.

School-choice proponents say it’s better for funding to follow students in order to give them wider options. Opponents warn that using public funds for private schools will gut already resource-strapped public schools.

Lombardo's two main proposals include creating the Office of School Choice and putting $50 million toward Opportunity Scholarships, a program passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2015 that allows businesses to receive tax credits on donations that go toward private school tuition of mostly low-income students.

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Lombardo says he'll support a bill expanding scholarship eligibility to households earning 500% above the federal poverty level, up from 300%.

The scholarship funding was met with opposition from Democratic Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, who argued against using public funds to promote private schools.

“If we cannot put a qualified teacher in every classroom, I do not know why we would ever entertain an idea to take public dollars away from those kids who deserve an education, and put it towards a private corporation,” she said.

Notably absent from Lombardo's school choice plans are education savings accounts, also known as ESAs. He spoke during the campaign about the voucher-style programs, which generally allow parents to access public funds that would otherwise go toward their child’s public school. Parents can apply it to private school tuition or qualified alternatives.

ESA proposals have been introduced in at least nine states this year.

In 2015, Nevada’s then-GOP-controlled Legislature passed the nation’s most comprehensive ESA program, which allowed parents to access over $5,000 annually for their child’s public schooling and apply it toward private school tuition or other qualified measures. Opponents filed legal challenges and Democrats retook control of the Legislature, leaving the program unfunded and unimplemented.

At the recent forum, Lombardo cited the Democratic-controlled Legislature and the need for compromise as reasons he did not promote ESA funding in his proposed budget.

“We have a design in place to get us there in the short order,” Lombardo said of increasing school choice. “And then we’ll look at bigger bites as we move forward.”

Others may push the idea sooner. Republican State Sen. Scott Hammond, a former teacher, said in an interview he plans to introduce a bill to fund ESAs.

While vouchers are likely a “non-starter” for Bilbray-Axelrod's Education Committee, she pointed to other initiatives that could potentially garner support, including the ability for families to send their kids to schools outside their zoning district as well as support for certain charter schools that have accountability measures.

“School choice looks like a lot of different things,” she said.

Following the unveiling of Lombardo's education budget last week, Nevada’s two largest teachers unions released statements taking diverging paths.

The Clark County Education Association, which includes Las Vegas, praised the proposed investment, saying it has been a long time coming.

The statewide union took aim at the Opportunity Scholarships, however, saying Lombardo “dusted off a failed voucher scheme that does nothing to improve the quality of education in Nevada.”

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Stern is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Follow him on Twitter: @gabestern326.