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Hundreds of students, with parents and teachers, braved temperatures in the 20's Wednesday morning to show their support for school choice, part of National School Choice Week, at the capital. January 25, 2017. (Tim Dunn/Special to the Nevada Independent)

One grandparent said she was grateful her grandchildren didn’t have to fear being jumped. One dad said his children are now in smaller classes than he had ever been. And another dad said his precocious son was finally enjoying school again.

All three placed children in private schools because of Nevada’s Opportunity Scholarship, and were among the dozens of people who testified to lawmakers Tuesday, asking them to boost the program by another $20 million over the next two years. More than 2,300 students are receiving scholarships through the program, which faces an uncertain future as skeptical Democrats have taken more legislative control, and which may need to shed hundreds of participants if funding drops from Sandoval administration levels, as Gov. Steve Sisolak has recommended.

“Please do not disrupt the education of these students receiving Opportunity Scholarships,” said Catherine Polyak, principal of International Christian Academy in Las Vegas, where a quarter of the students receive the scholarship. “There’s a great need, and we have the tools in place to help students that have these particular needs and desire smaller class sizes and more intimate community.”

The two hours of public comment, which was far more than expected and pushed an all-day budget hearing off schedule, may be an omen of things to come in the legislative session. While the more controversial, voucher-style Education Savings Accounts program is all but off the table for a Legislature controlled by Democrats who have been staunchly opposed to ESAs, school choice advocates see an important opening in the four-year-old, more limited Opportunity Scholarship program.

It’s reserved for families from households making 300 percent or less of the poverty line, offering awards of various sizes depending on where a family falls on the income scale, and many Democrats voted in favor of additional funding for the program in 2017 as part of a session-ending compromise.

“I think elected officials in both parties are starting to wake up to this groundswell of support in our communities for school choice,” former Republican Senate Leader Michael Roberson said at a forum in October. “We tripled Opportunity Scholarships and I don’t want to gloss over that because the conversation is always about ESAs.”

How it works

Signed into law in 2015, the Opportunity Scholarship gives students from low- and middle-income households up to $8,132 a year to attend a private school. Businesses donate the money for the scholarship to one of a handful of nonprofit scholarship agencies and receive a credit on their modified business tax (payroll tax) liability.

In 2017, legislative Republicans vowed they would vote against any budget bills unless Democrats funded ESAs — a more sweeping program that would allow an unlimited number or students, regardless of household income, to take thousands of dollars of public education funding apiece and use it for private school tuition or other educational expenses. After a dramatic showdown, the two sides agreed to a compromise: Some Republicans would support the budget in exchange for a one-time, $20 million investment in Opportunity Scholarships.

That shot of funding is on top of the amount required by existing law — about $6.7 million this school year and growing by 10 percent each year. It has allowed the program to enlist more students than would otherwise receive the scholarship, although there are still another 1,300 students on the waiting list.

But the $20 million allotment can only be spread out over five years. Valeria Gurr of the Nevada School Choice Coalition estimates that once that time period is over and the one-shot money is spent, about 900 current participants will lose their scholarships.

That would likely put private school out of reach for many recipients and send them back to public schools — a consequence that is a tougher political swallow than opposing ESAs, which never disbursed any money.

“If a student was bullied or not pushed far enough academically, they would have to go back to that,” said Republican state Sen. Scott Hammond, who sponsored the original ESA bill. “You can have the best school next to you and it might not be what’s right for your student.”

Republican Sen. Heidi Gansert says she’ll be carrying a bill that would propose an additional $20 million for the program, as well as make some policy changes. It would remove requirements that students come from a low- or middle-income family to receive the scholarship if they have a disability, and it would add more accountability measures for the program, including better tracking of student outcomes and a survey of parents.

She highlighted the program when she delivered the Republican response to Gov. Steve Sisolak’s State of the State address, citing the case of a child named John who had autism and tried five different schools unsuccessfully before getting an Opportunity Scholarship and finding a good fit.

“It truly gives families the opportunity to find a school that best suits their child,” said Gansert.

Opposition

Sisolak said he included in his budget the tax credits required by the 2015 law. In the upcoming fiscal year, that’s $7,320,500, with another $8,052,550 the year after.

But in an interview with Nevada Independent Editor Jon Ralston earlier this week, Sisolak signaled opposition to the $20 million ask that would maintain the level of funding approved under the Sandoval administration.

“Opportunity Scholarships are a complicated form of an ESA … I would rather invest that extra $20 million into our public education system,” he said. While he said he understands parents being frustrated with the quality of public schools, “the people that are advocating for ESAs should be advocating for more funding for public education … If you take these dollars out of the public school system, we’re going to have an even bigger shortfall in the public school system than we already had.”

The Nevada State Education Association, the teachers union, plans to oppose efforts to expand Opportunity Scholarships, even amid the complaints of parents that the large class sizes in public schools were not serving their children. One parent wrote to legislators that her high school-age son was not succeeding in a public school but excelled at Sierra Lutheran High School in Carson City.

“With only about 15 students in a class, the teachers have time to work with him and help him learn the material,” wrote Terry Trease. “The teachers are able to make a much stronger connection with my son which has made an enormous difference in just his first few weeks of classes.”

Goldie and Vern Pierce, who are raising their three grandsons, also expressed that sentiment. Their oldest grandson had fallen behind and was not receiving sufficient help in his public school.

“I think there are too many children in the public schools. The teachers don’t have the time to meet the needs of all students,” the couple testified. “I would like to see our tax dollars that are sent to the Douglas County School District to go to Grace Christian Academy, or wherever parents decide which school is the best fit for their child.”

Union officials agree that the classes are too large, but their solution involves a drastic ramp-up of public education funding and they’re staunchly opposed to increasing Opportunity Scholarship funding any more than the law already requires.

“We have the largest class sizes in the country, which is why we need to invest public money in public schools — so we can reduce the class sizes,” said Chris Daly, deputy director of the union. “Taking money that could go to public schools to reduce class sizes, to subsidize certain students to go to private schools — that’s only going to exacerbate the problem … Most Nevada students go to public schools and so the task at hand needs to [be to] improve all Nevada schools for all Nevada children.”

Political calculus

The program may be an easier political sell than ESAs because it’s “means-tested,” meaning it only flows to children whose household income is 300 percent of the poverty level or below, and operates on a sliding scale to give poorer families more money.

ESAs drew criticism in part because they would supply flat payments of thousands of dollars a year in state education money to any student even if they came from a wealthy family. The lone Democratic lawmaker who was publicly open to the program in 2017, former Assemblyman Justin Watkins, recommended the payouts be on a sliding scale.

Currently, 75 percent of students in the Opportunity Scholarship program are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, with the average household income for a scholarship recipient around $46,000. Twenty-eight percent of scholarship recipients are Latino and 27 percent are of mixed race.

Representatives from the Nevada Policy Research Institute, which supports the program, said they were heartbroken that funding might decrease and framed it as state leaders caving to the interests of the education establishment.

“If these scholarships are not continued, political leadership in Nevada will have told each one of these disadvantaged students that their shot at a good education isn’t nearly as important as protecting the political interests of the public-school system that left them behind in the first place,” the conservative think tank said in a statement.

But with Republicans firmly in the minority in the Legislature and out of control of the Governor’s Mansion, school choice proponents are trying to find support among Democrats who have historically been chilly toward the concept. In one example, the Nevada School Choice Coalition publicly applauded several Democrats after they won their elections.

“We support both sides of the aisle,” Gurr said. “We’re interested in working with whoever will support us.”

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