On a party line vote, members of the legislative audit subcommittee on Wednesday approved regulations to implement the school vouchers program — including exemptions for military and kindergartners that were never even discussed in drafting and passing the legislation.
Senate Bill 302, which has created the so-called Educational Savings Account program, allows parents to take up to $5,000 a year from the state to help pay private school tuition for their children. But it requires the student to be in a public school for at least 100 days before they can get the money and move to a private school.
The regulations drafted by the state Treasurer’s office and approved Wednesday give children of military families and those children 5-7 years old an exemption from the 100-day requirement.
With some 4,100 applications already filed, granting all of them would remove $20.5 million from the state’s education budgets.
Deputy Treasurer Grant Hewitt told the subcommittee headed by Sen. James Settelmeyer, R-Gardnerville, the exemption was supported by the 1999 Interstate Compact on issues involving children of military families who often have to move from school to school. He added Senate Resolution 1 of last week’s special legislative session affirms lawmakers intended the exemptions as part of SB302. Senate Minority Leader Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas, said that conclusion isn’t supported by any evidence. He said a review of all the minutes and videotapes of the hearings on that piece of legislation shows “there was no specific discussion of military families and limited discussion of kindergarten children.”
“Students must attend public schools for 100 days prior to qualifying,” Ford said. “There was no exemption being offered at that time.”
He said the regulation violates the law.
“What you presented to us exceeds the scope of the authority the Legislature has granted the Treasurer,” he told Hewitt.
He emphasized his position in no way reflects on members of the military: “My position is purely a constitutional one. This subcommittee cannot endorse regulations that exceed the authority given in statute.”
Assembly Minority Leader Irene Bustamante-Adams, D-Las Vegas, said she’s a military spouse and believes there should be that exemption but she too thinks that Senate resolution is just “a way to back into legislative intent.”
“This is why judges often times don’t look at legislative intent,” said Ford. “They look at the plain language of the legislation.”
He predicted the district court, which is reviewing a lawsuit that charges the entire program is unconstitutional, would see right through that alleged “intent.”
The legal challenge argues the voucher program violates the Nevada Constitution’s provision prohibiting diversion of public funds for any religious purpose. Nearly all of the private schools that would receive the money are operated by religious groups.
Backers of the program argue the money doesn’t go to those religious schools directly, that it goes into Educational Savings Accounts held in the parents’ names and the parents, then, forward the money to the schools.
Republicans Settelmeyer, Sen. Pete Goicoechea, of Eureka and Assembly members Erven Nelson and Stephen Silberkraus of Las Vegas voted to approve the regulations. Democrats Ford and Assembly members Adams and Tyrone Thompson voted to reject the regulations.