A group of Hispanic pastors visited the Legislature on Monday to meet with lawmakers and express their support for the Education Savings Account (ESA) program, saying it would bring more education options for immigrant families who attend their churches.
Representatives of the Nevada Pastors Alliance, which includes about 20 Southern Nevada pastors, appealed to lawmakers in a press conference in Carson City. One of them was Jorge Sanchez, an immigrant who is now principal of University Baptist Academy in North Las Vegas.
“I'm asking you to give other students in Nevada the same opportunity that I got - the chance to go to the school of my and my parents' choice,” Sanchez said. “A chance that unfortunately my junior high friends ... didn't get to have.”
Some of the religious institutions that the pastors represent have private schools where a large majority of immigrant children study. That’s why they believe the ESA program could benefit mentoring programs for young children, as well as their future academic achievements.
Pastor John Sclafani, from the First Hispanic Baptist Church of North Las Vegas, said that his congregation opened the school 24 years ago as a response to the problem of students -- mainly Hispanic -- who were dropping out of public institutions.
University Baptist Academy offers low tuition prices because parents don’t have enough money to pay for their children’s education at private schools.
"If you send them to public schools, they are not going to have the same opportunity of having a focus on teaching as we do, with small classrooms, only a few students and dedicated teachers,” Sclafani said. “The kids leave here being very well prepared for college.”
Pastor Joel Menchaca from the Christian Friendship church said in a press release that the Nevada Pastors Alliance advocates for solutions, including Education Savings Accounts, which "will give every child the opportunity to satisfy his/her God-given natural abilities and talent.”
"Our communities are facing a crisis that has resulted in a negative impact on families, businesses and communities,” he said.
The ESA program aims to allocate state funds to an account that parents will control, in order to pay for their child’s education.
Parents can also use the money to create a custom educational experience for their children, from enrolling them in private schools or taking online classes, to choosing a home-school environment.
One of the two ESA bills this session was sponsored by Republican Sen. Scott Hammond, who introduced the concept during the 2015 legislative session. The 2015 bill passed a few days before legislative work for that year wrapped up and it was signed into law by Gov. Brian Sandoval
But the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that the funding mechanism was not constitutional, and money has never flowed to the accounts.
Since then, the ESA program has been in the middle of a controversy because its opponents view it as a voucher-style program that, far from benefiting public schools, directs government funds to private education institutions, therefore draining resources away from needy schools.
While Sandoval has proposed spending $60 million on ESAs and Republicans are eager to revive the program, they no longer have the majority control they had in 2015 and face a tough road persuading enough Democrats to support the concept. Republican Assemblyman John Hambrick told pastors that "we need your prayers" to ensure the program re-emerges.
Republican senators who attended the press conference noted that they were probably one Senate vote and six Assembly votes short of what they needed to pass the bill, and urged the pastors to make personal appeals to Democratic lawmakers while they were in Carson City.
"I am confident this is going to happen in the next two weeks," Republican Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson told the group. "We are going to have these and your children and your congregations are going to have school choice."
In a recent interview in Spanish with The Nevada Independent, Hammond said he supports public schools, because he worked in them as a teacher for 16 years, but that he also thinks it’s critical to have competition.
"This is the future,” he said. “It’s the program that we need here, because the way I see it, it’s necessary that all parents have the ability to teach their children and students something that reflects their own abilities and desires and to be able to create options accordingly.”
Feature photo: Hispanic pastors who support the Education Savings Accounts program join Republican lawmakers in prayer on May 22, 2017 in Carson City. Photo by Michelle Rindels.