Lawmakers were urged Friday to authorize voucher-style scholarships for some special-needs students by a Nevada senator who argued public schools can't always do as good a job for such students as private schools.
Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, asked the Senate Human Resources and Education Committee to pass SB158, which would let families with special-needs children choose between going to public schools, or taking state money that would otherwise be spent on them to private schools in the form of a Special Needs Scholarship.
The state would maintain a list of private schools licensed to carry out the program. Students who use state money at private schools would not be compelled to participate in any religious programs the school has.
Cegavske's is modeled after a Florida program called the McKay Scholarships. Such programs have been criticized as precursors to private school vouchers for all students.
"Our public school system cannot be everything to every student," said Cegavske. "We know that, we've seen that, we understand that."
Former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, a conservative Republican who has taught in private and public schools, also endorsed the proposal. Angle said that when she was working at a new private school in Winnemucca, many parents enrolled special-needs students because they weren't finding what they needed at public schools.
"The parents were at their wits end," said Angle. "There was no more choice. The public school system had failed them, for whatever reason, mostly because they slipped through the cracks."
Frank Schnorbus, a foster parent and court-appointed special advocate who works with neglected and abused children, spoke in support of the bill.
"Particularly when they get into middle school or high school age, the emotional needs of these children are significant, especially if there's been sexual abuse, physical abuse, or other kinds of abuse," said Schnorbus. "To have a special program that these children could attend, in a school set aside for them, is an awesome idea."
Clark County School District lobbyist Craig Kadlub opposed the bill, saying that diverting public funds to private schools was a fundamentally bad idea.
"Taxes are levied to serve the common good of the public, not the diverse and private needs of special interests," said Kadlub.
Kadlub also pointed out that the school district already provides services to many privately schooled and home schooled special-needs students, who come to public schools for physical therapy, occupational services, and other programs.
Julie Whitacre, a lobbyist for the Nevada State Education Association, said that public schools have suffered wherever voucher programs have been introduced. Since special-needs students can cost up to $20,000 per year to educate, the loss would be significant, she said, adding that voucher supporters ignore the fixed costs schools pay for transportation, maintenance, and utilities.
"Supporters of scholarships and vouchers tend to minimize or dismiss the impact that this has on public schools," said Whitacre.
"It's a fact that vouchers take badly needed funds from public schools, leaving the vast majority of students with fewer resources."