Nevada legislators reject use of federal coronavirus funds for private school scholarships
LAS VEGAS, Nev. (AP) - Democratic legislators in Nevada have rejected a proposal from Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo to shore up a private-school scholarship program with unallocated federal money.
The state’s Interim Finance Committee voted along party lines, with Democrats opposing the governor’s proposal to use $3.2 million in unallocated federal coronavirus relief funds to maintain existing scholarships.
The decision at the close of a marathon 12-hour hearing Wednesday was the latest setback in Lombardo’s efforts to make school choice a priority in Nevada’s increasingly rare split-party government.
Lombardo originally wanted to expand eligibility and provide an additional $50 million for the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program, passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2015, that allows businesses to receive tax credits on donations that go toward the private and religious school tuitions of mostly low-income students.
But instead of expanding the program, Lombardo now is looking to maintain the program at previous funding and eligibility levels.
Leading Democratic legislators said Wednesday that reserve funding within the Opportunity Scholarship program should be adequate to cover all currently enrolled students. They described the program as broken, noting that one scholarship-granting organization out of six obtained an outsized share of funding on a first-served basis.
Lombardo warned in a news release that several hundred Nevada schoolchildren would now be kicked off their Opportunity Scholarships and removed from their schools.
“In an act of callous partisanship, today Democrats turned their backs on hundreds of low-income students that our traditional school system has failed or left behind,” Lombardo said.
Interim Finance Committee chairwoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno accused the governor of trying to “supplement a voucher program that already has plenty of money.”
“His administration has allowed one organization to hoard all the tax credits, ultimately manufacturing this crisis,” said the Democratic assemblywoman from North Las Vegas.
Usually opposed by teachers unions and Democrats, school choice generally refers to taxpayer-funded programs to fund or expand access to other educational options including private or charter schools, home-schooling or hybrid models, though it can take many forms.
Proponents of school choice say it gives students more options, especially for those who don’t benefit from traditional public schools. Democratic lawmakers warn that using public funds for private schools will gut already resource-strapped public schools. The arguments in Nevada mirror the national debate echoing across statehouses across the country.
Using federal coronavirus relief money to advance school choice is not without precedent. Republican governors in Tennessee, Arizona and Oklahoma used federal money with few strings attached but generally meant to help schools “most significantly impacted by coronavirus” to launch charter schools, expand private school vouchers and fund scholarships for low-income students attending private schools.
The school choice debate is particularly potent in Nevada, which has amplified divisions between the relatively moderate Republican governor and the Democratic-controlled Legislature. The state ranks toward the bottom of national rankings in per-pupil funding. Urban and rural schools face teacher shortages, underfunding, aging infrastructure and overcrowded classrooms.
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