School vouchers funding fight delayed in Nevada Legislature

Lawmakers on Friday voted to push the battle over the school vouchers program off until the end of session.

Both the Senate Finance and Assembly Ways and Means committee voted to remove the $60 million in funding proposed by Gov. Brian Sandoval from the State Treasurer’s Office budget.

That doesn’t kill the program since that funding is still included in SB506, the enabling legislation that would amend and restructure the so-called Educational Savings Accounts program.

But it simplifies the issue since SB506 is much easier to deal with in either approving, amending or killing the program than handling it within the state budget and the complex Appropriations Act that lays out General Fund spending for the coming two years.

Removing the funding from the budget itself basically gives lawmakers until the end of session to decide what to do.

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, and supporters of the program agreed to the decision. He described the program as “a work in progress,” since SB506 is still being discussed and worked on.

Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, has threatened to block the entire budget unless vouchers are approved.

The ESA’s program was approved on a party line vote in the final hours of the 2015 Legislature but its funding mechanism was ruled unconstitutional by the Nevada Supreme Court because it paid for the vouchers by stripping money out of the K-12 budget. The governor tried to cure that problem this time by providing $60 million in funding to pay for the accounts.

Democrats oppose the program, arguing it shifts public schools money to, primarily, wealthier Nevada families who want it to help pay tuition to send their children to private and religious schools.

The treasurer’s office says it has received some 8,500 applications but only about a 10th of them are complete at this point.

An analysis by legislative fiscal staff shows for those applications where they could find financial data, 539 of the 790 completed ESA applications are by households making more than $50,000 a year, 304 of them for families making more than $100,000 annually.

SB506 wouldn’t only fund $25 million in 2018 and $35 million in 2019, it would make a variety of changes to current law including moving the entire program out of the treasurer’s control to a new Office of Educational Choice in the state Department of Education. It would also limit the number of vouchers any school district can issue to 5 percent of each district’s enrollment. Current law doesn’t limit the number of ESAs, each worth just under $5,900 a school year. SB506 would cap the number of grants at 4,114 in 2018 and 5,716 in 2019. The money would be awarded based on the order in which the applications were received.


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