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New PAC aims to bring back voucher-style education program through ballot initiatives

Jackie Valley
Jackie Valley
ElectionsK-12 Education
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A recently created political action committee has set its sights on reviving education savings accounts — a politically divisive concept that would allow parents to use state money to pay for private school tuition or other qualifying educational expenses.

A PAC called Education Freedom for Nevada filed both a statutory and constitutional initiative with the secretary of state’s office on Monday to establish the voucher-style program. The Nevada Current first reported the initiatives. 

Erin Phillips, co-founder and president of the advocacy organization Power2Parent, serves as chairwoman of the new PAC. In a news release announcing the initiatives, she described the move as “needed now in Nevada more than ever” given continued challenges in the state’s K-12 public education system and learning disparities exacerbated by pandemic-related disruptions.

“The reality is that parents are really frustrated and they don’t feel like the Legislature or their elected officials have stood up for their kids, especially in the last 20 months or so,” Phillips said in a phone interview.

Voucher-style programs have fueled heated political debates, including in Nevada, with Republicans arguing that they would expand parental choice and spur competition and innovation in the education sector. But Democrats have largely opposed the efforts, arguing that they siphon money away from public schools and hurt some of the most vulnerable students.

The initiatives backed by Education Freedom for Nevada essentially seek the same outcome, which is the establishment of an “education freedom account,” allowing parents to access state funds to pay for educational environments or services outside the public school system. 

The constitutional initiative says the money filtered into the accounts would be “comparable” to the state support a child receives at a public school; whereas, the statutory initiative says the grant would be equal to 90 percent of the statewide base per-pupil funding, which is $6,890 this fiscal year and $7,074 in the 2022-2023 fiscal year. 

The statutory initiative also notes that the Legislature would need to appropriate money to the education freedom accounts.

The pathways for the initiatives differ slightly as well: If the PAC gathers enough signatures (140,777) for the constitutional initiative by June 15, the measure will appear on the general election ballot in November. The statutory initiative has a signature-gathering deadline of Nov. 23, and if that’s met, the Legislature would consider it during the 2023 session. A rejection or inaction on behalf of the Legislature would pave the way for the statutory initiative to appear before voters in the 2024 general election.

Phillips said she envisions the program, if it comes to fruition, gradually expanding over time as the state’s education options diversify. She emphasized that the goal isn’t to only provide public money for private school tuition, but rather to encourage more competition and innovation in the entire education landscape.

Voucher-style programs have led to contentious fights in the Legislature over the past few lawmaking cycles. In 2015, the Legislature passed and then-Gov. Brian Sandoval signed into law an education savings account program, which faced a legal challenge and then never received funding. The Nevada Supreme Court ruled the premise was constitutional but not the funding mechanism.

A Republican-backed effort to fund the dormant education savings account program during the 2019 legislative session failed. Instead, the Democrat-majority Legislature eliminated the program through SB551 that same year.

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