How a legislative budget fight created a tug-of-war over Nevada charter schools
Hours before the Legislature was set to adjourn sine die, Democratic leaders thought they had a deal.
In a 120-day session fraught with partisan tension, Democrats and Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo ultimately brokered deals on an education budget that would boost K-12 spending by more than $2 billion, alongside a pair of hotly contested bills — one sponsored by Lombardo, the other backed by Democrats — that would overhaul the state’s “restorative justice” school discipline law.
So how did a proposed $32 million for charter school teachers collapse a pillar of the state budget, sending lawmakers skidding into the shortest special session in state history just a day later?
It came after Democratic leaders feuded for weeks with Lombardo over a raft of key gubernatorial priorities, among them a sweeping expansion of the Opportunity Scholarships program that would have fulfilled a core campaign promise — expanding school choice.
But school choice broadly and Opportunity Scholarships in particular had become a political lightning rod for legislative Democrats, who vowed not only to keep funding for the scholarships flat, but also to remove school choice from the 2023 legislative agenda altogether.
As Lombardo’s policy bills stalled in Democrat-controlled committees, the fight spilled into threats of vetos, and ultimately the hostage-taking of key bills. On one end, Lombardo promised to veto all or part of the state budget — the first such veto since 2011 — if Democrats did not move his bills. On the other, Democrats pledged to sit on major bills — namely a deal for a new Las Vegas stadium for the Oakland A’s — if Lombardo did not approve the budget.
In the waning days of the session, the brinkmanship brokered compromise. As part of a broader deal the week before to push a $2 billion K-12 funding increase across the finish line, Lombardo backed away from Opportunity Scholarships entirely. A late amendment excised it, alongside a proposal for open zoning (a policy that would allow students to more easily attend schools outside their assigned zone) and a proposed “Office of School Choice” from Lombardo’s education omnibus bill, AB400.
In their place, a new beneficiary: charter schools, which Republicans have championed as alternative education options, especially for students who want to leave low-performing traditional public schools. Many Democrats see charter schools as part of the school choice movement which critics have long argued siphons away public funds that could otherwise be supporting traditional public schools.
AB400 — signed by the governor on Monday — preserves in state law the ability of county and city governments to sponsor new public charter schools, and sets aside $14 million for funding a transportation option for students attending charter schools.
The AB400 deal was followed by two more, as Democrats gutted and advanced Lombardo bills that aimed to reshape the executive branch and tighten certain criminal penalties — moves that ensured all but one of Lombardo’s five bills (the exception being an election law overhaul Democrats described as dead on arrival) would make it to his desk.
But with just minutes left before lawmakers were required by the constitution to adjourn sine die, Senate Republicans voted as a bloc to kill the last of the state’s five budget bills. With Democrats one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass AB521 — the state’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP) authorizing more than $1 billion in construction and maintenance funding — it all but guaranteed a new special session — even as Lombardo had signaled he would sign the budget bills once they made it out of the Legislature.
And it was all, Republicans argued, in defense of charter schools.
“It’s very frustrating to be in this place, and the answer is so simple,” Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno) said on the Senate floor, just before the final CIP vote. “Our request is reasonable, their answer can be very, very easy … we’re looking for equity. We want to make sure charter schools get funding.”
The politics of teacher pay
About 61,000 students, nearly 12 percent of the state’s 490,000 public school students, attend a state-sponsored charter school.
Charter schools are public schools, and as such are entitled to state funding, but they tend to have more autonomy and flexibility because they don’t have to adhere to all the rules and regulations that their district counterparts do.
Enter SB231, a measure that aimed to appropriate $250 million in matching dollars as a means to boost pay for public school educators who work in the district schools. Democrats, who backed the proposal, argued that it functioned as a necessary incentive to boost teacher and support staff salaries — in large part because those salaries are subject to collective bargaining agreements, and could not be earmarked by lawmakers as part of the $2 billion spending increase.
However, educators who work in Nevada public charter schools were left out of the bill, despite calls by Republicans for an additional $32 million to include funds for raises for those educators.
Sen. Carrie Buck (R-Henderson) also argued that there was plenty of state funding to cover charter teacher pay raises, in addition to district teachers, and pointed to so-called “Christmas tree” bills that would appropriate more than $110 million from the state general fund to more than 70 nonprofits and government agencies and are pending approval from Lombardo.
“(Democrats) just didn’t have the appetite to do it because they don’t want the governor to have any wins on school choice and unfortunately, children and teachers are sacrificed by them,” she said in an interview after the regular session.
State Public Charter School Authority Executive Director Rebecca Feiden doesn’t have concrete data on average charter school teacher pay, but said charter schools tend to follow the pay scales of school districts in their areas.
Last year, Mater Academy of Nevada Executive Director Renee Fairless rushed to match the Clark County School District’s new starting teacher salary of about $50,000.
With SB231, the Clark County School District has a chance to once again raise salaries. But the exclusion of charter school educators in the bill raises concerns for Fairless as to whether she and other charter schools will be able to keep up with raises school districts give their employees.
“No matter how loyal our teachers are to Mater, no matter how loyal they are to these kids, at the end of the day when rent rates are going up and inflation has taken place, if the district ends up offering another $5,000 to $7,000 and I can't match that, it's a concern,” she said.
Sen. Marilyn Dondero Loop (D-Las Vegas) — chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee and a longtime teacher — did not respond to a request for comment or several emailed questions about both the budget bill and the teacher pay bill.
But in a May 18 hearing on the measure in the Senate Finance Committee, Dondero Loop pressed Charter School Association lobbyist Sarah Adler — who argued in testimony that charter school teachers should be included in SB231 — on whether she believed the money should also go to charter school teachers without certification.
“Public school teachers need to be certificated,” Dondero Loop said. “I could not teach a first-grade class or a mariachi class or a dance class or whatever it is without being certificated in a public school. I can in a charter.”
Under state law, at least 80 percent of the teachers who provide instruction at a charter school must hold a license or endorsement to teach issued by the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
According to the State Public Charter School Authority, there are almost 3,000 teachers in the charter schools it sponsors. Out of those teachers, 800 are licensed as substitute teachers and 43, or less than 2 percent of them, were unlicensed.
All of Futuro Academy’s 24 teachers have licenses, said Executive Director and Lead Founder Ignacio Prado. Of those teachers, five are licensed as substitute teachers, and three of his subs are working on completing their training to become licensed as standard teachers.
“You cannot build a morally sound argument that a teacher that teaches here … subject to all the same requirements under the same license requirements is somehow doing something so different than a teacher down the street,” Prado said.
The small number of unlicensed charter school teachers became a key talking point by the end of the regular session, and suddenly into the new special session, as Republicans voted to kill the last of the state’s final budget deal over the $32 million dispute. Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks), for instance, called the argument “absolutely bogus” during a floor debate on the special session budget bill.
“They’re not lousy teachers that can’t get a job in the regular public school system, they’re, in fact, specialized people who perform a very valuable service to the children of our state,” Hansen said.
Several charter school administrators and teachers, including Hilary Moskowitz, pleaded at a June 4 Assembly Ways and Means Committee for lawmakers to support the amendment so all public school teachers could have a livable wage.
Prior to teaching high school English at the Mater Academy East campus, Moskowitz taught in the Clark County School District, but said she left the district because of “vindictive” administrators, “terrible” health insurance and “under appreciation” for teachers and staff.
“Luckily, I had a choice of where I could work,” Moskowitz said. “If teachers have no choice, I fear many of us at charters will leave Nevada rather than return to a district that has failed us.”
Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas), who spearheaded the bill, argued at the committee meeting that the purpose of SB231 — a bill backed by the Clark County Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union — is to address teacher vacancies at traditional district schools. She said she doesn’t see that same issue at Nevada charter schools.
“So that's not to say that charter school teachers don't aren't important and that we don't care about them, but we are trying to zero in on a very specific need,” Cannizzaro said.
Gia Maraccini, principal at Mater Academy of Northern Nevada in Reno, pushed back and said charter schools like hers have had issues hiring teachers and support staff, and she’s also seen “wonderful teachers” leave the profession sometimes in the middle of the school year.
But at no point did Democrats move to amend SB231 to cover charter school teachers, too, ultimately advancing the bill the day before sine die over Republican objections (though those objections did not extend to the vote count, as the measure passed unanimously in the Senate and with only one “nay” vote in the Assembly).
Buck said in an interview that with hours left before the session would end, Senate Republican leadership told Democrats that adding the new money to the final budget bill would secure Republican votes and finalize the budget.
“[Gansert] went down and told them this is it, this [$32 million] and then we'll all vote on it,” Buck said.
To Democrats, however, the move was a non-starter, a last-minute bargaining chip that worked against a “handshake” deal already in place with the governor. The budget bill failed with no Republican votes. Within the day, Lombardo would call a special session to revive an identical copy of the budget bill, which was ultimately approved by the Senate with a single Republican defector — termed out Sen. Scott Hammond (R-Las Vegas).
In an interview with The Nevada Independent after the regular session ended, Cannizzaro laid the blame at Lombardo’s feet, ostensibly for failing to whip the votes of his party for a negotiated budget voted on as-is — without any new charter school money.
“This is a negotiated deal,” she said. “We agreed to all these pieces. We're not renegotiating in the 11th hour.”
And in a coda to the special session called to pass the final budget bill, Cannizzaro rebutted Senate Republicans’ call to add the charter money to an unrelated bill, the CIP budget, on the Senate floor.
“Let us be very clear about why we are here tonight,” Cannizzaro said. “It is because there is a proclamation from the governor of the State of Nevada, a Republican governor, that says you shall consider this particular bill. That’s why we’re here.”
Funding for facilities
Charter school advocates also argue that the charter schools are further put at a disadvantage because they don’t receive dedicated funding to support the building or maintenance of their facilities. Because of this, charter schools are left paying for their facilities through the per-pupil funds, which they also use to cover employee salaries and other operational costs such as instructional materials.
Feiden said other options include applying for revolving loans through the State Public Charter School Authority or the Nevada State Infrastructure Bank, raising money through grants and donations and building partnerships to find lease agreements that work for them.
“Charter schools are scrappy, and try to figure out ways to make things work and our schools have certainly been able to do that,” she said.
Prado said Futuro Academy formed its campus from a repurposed grocery store building that had been empty prior to the school’s launch in 2017 through support from tax credits aimed at rehabilitating abandoned buildings and partners such as the City of Las Vegas.
“Before, it was basically blighted,” Prado said. “The city actually approached us and helped us with some of the financing and in return, you know, we're providing a community benefit … maintaining the building.”
Similarly, the Mater Academy East Las Vegas K-12 campus was built on a redeveloped 20-acre site that originally housed a community center and church. Mater Academy built two new buildings on the site to house its middle school and high school facilities, but Fairless said the elementary school is in an older building that required thousands of dollars to improve the air conditioning system.
Moving forward, the lack of dedicated funding to maintain those schools could lead to tough budget choices such as choosing to buy older curriculum over newer, more expensive curriculum in order to pay for everything.
“My job should be just being an instructional leader,” she said.
Buck had introduced a bill, SB256, this session that would have alleviated some of those pressures by creating a facilities fund for certain charter schools.
“So what we were trying to do is get some equity,” she said.
Her bill ultimately died without getting a single hearing.
School choice advocate Valeria Gurr, who had supported Buck’s bill, said capital funding is needed to open more options in low-income areas, particularly for Hispanic families who are searching for alternative options for their students, but aren’t always able to get into charter schools because of long waitlists.
“I want to personally see more charter schools in lower-income areas so that we can bring competition to these areas, but we're not ever going to be able to do that without capital funding,” she said.
Sponsor opportunities, transportation funding
Lombardo did, however, succeed in passing his flagship bill, AB400, that included two provisions that will benefit existing and upcoming charter schools.
One section of the bill will allow cities and counties to apply to the state Department of Education to become charter school sponsors similar to the State Public Charter School Authority, school districts and Nevada System of Higher Education institutions, something Sen. Dina Neal (D-North Las Vegas) had tried to block this session through a bill, SB344, that would have prevented county and city governments from sponsoring, operating or funding charter schools.
As sponsors, cities would be able to authorize the opening of new charter schools within their incorporated areas, and counties would be able to do the same in their unincorporated areas. Those schools, like other charter schools sponsored by the State Public Charter School Authority and some school districts, would be able to receive state funding. In addition, as sponsors, cities and counties would be responsible for the accountability and oversight of the schools they approve.
Feiden said the State Public Charter School Authority welcomes and encourages multiple authorizers.
“I think the research shows that when you have multiple authorizers it generally has positive outcomes for the educational landscape,” she said. “We see it as an opportunity.”
Another win in the bill for charter schools is a total $14 million over the next two years in state funding for transportation costs at certain charter schools. The funds were part of Lombardo’s push to expand school choice, a pillar of his gubernatorial campaign.
Prior to the bill, only school districts were entitled to transportation funding from the state. As a result, transportation is not often offered at charter schools, which limits access to students who aren’t able to get to charter schools otherwise. The schools that chose to do so, such as Nevada Prep Charter School in Las Vegas, must pay for it using the state funding they receive in order to cover for staff salaries, curriculum and other costs associated with running their campuses
“Until we actually provide transportation, we can't say the school choices are right. It's just a privilege at this point, because you gotta be able to get to school,” said Nevada Prep executive director David Blodgett.
The bill states that a charter school’s transportation plan should not cost more on a per-pupil basis than the average transportation costs of other district schools in its area. In 2022, the Clark County School District received about $1,055 per student in transportation funding through the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan.
Blodgett estimates that his school currently spends about a third of that per-student amount for its transportation program, which provides transportation to about half of the school’s 300 students using two used school buses that run two routes. With this new funding, Blodgett thinks Nevada Prep will be able to take on two additional routes to accommodate the students currently on its waitlist.
In order to receive funding, charter schools must submit a “financially viable” transportation plan to the State Public Charter School Authority for approval based on criteria outlined in the bill.
Feiden said her department is working on getting that application out to schools as quickly as possible so everything can be in place in time for the start of the school year.
While Futuro Academy doesn’t have a fully developed transportation program like Nevada Prep, Prado said he’s considering applying for the transportation funds, even if it’s just to scale up the school’s existing program that covers the costs of the public bus passes for students who need that assistance.
Meanwhile, the Mater Academy schools in Las Vegas have one bus that’s used primarily by students who participate in extracurricular activities after school. But Fairless feels conflicted on spending more on transportation, when she can’t invest more for her employees' pay.
“It'd been better if they had given us that choice: use a percentage of that funding for transportation or use a percentage of that to at least provide some raises to your teachers who have been veteran teachers that are here with you,” Fairless said.
Although the session didn’t end with charter schools getting everything they asked for, one thing that leaves Feiden hopeful is what charter schools also stand to gain from the historic, additional $2 billion in K-12 education funding that lawmakers and the governor approved for the next biennium.
“With the kind of tremendous increase we're going to see in per-pupil funding, I think that's going to go a long way for public schools, period, charter or not, to really help to meet the needs of students, including through ensuring that we've got great teachers in front of kids,” she said.
Charter school leaders such as Fairless and Prado said they are watching carefully to see what happens next with educator pay to determine their next steps.
The Clark County School District said it’s in negotiations with the Clark County Education Association and the Education Support Employees Association (ESEA), the bargaining units for the district’s teachers and support staff, respectively, and can’t share the details of those contract discussions.
But Prado said he doesn’t think this is the end of the charter schools’ push for equitable pay for their educators.
“We're already exploring next steps for advocating to the regulatory process for the implementation of the bill, and if necessary, maybe even legal challenges, because we feel like this is a really poor and negative precedent to set,” he said.
Correction: June 19. 2023. A previous version of this article misstated the amount of appropriated in two so-called "Christmas tree" bills. The bills appropriate more than $110 million to nonprofits and government agencies.