Nevada legislative committee hammers treasurer’s office on vouchers
Thursday saw the first legislative sparring match over the school vouchers program as Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas, challenged Treasurer’s Chief of Staff Grant Hewitt over the office’s inability to deliver demographic information about the families applying for the program.
“We’ve been asking this office for a year and a half for demographic information on who applied,” Ford said. “We have not received the information we asked for.”
He made the comment after Hewitt said there are a large number of middle-class families applying for the roughly $5,100 a school year in state money to send their children to private schools.
There have been several reports claiming the majority of those applying for Educational Savings Accounts are wealthy families, effectively charging the program is a gift of public money to the rich.
“How are you calculating whether someone is poor or middle class?” Ford asked.
Hewitt responded in the Senate Finance Committee the Treasurer’s Office felt it “inappropriate for our office to ask the demographic questions at that point.” He said the only requirements in the law are the child is a Nevada resident and have spent at least 100 days in public school before his or her parents applied.
“We can’t make a decision until we have the information we have been requesting,” said Ford.
He also charged Treasurer Dan Schwartz’s office in at least two cases had ignored legislative direction.
The first was going around lawmakers to hire a public information officer they specifically refused to approve during the 2015 session.
Hewitt said that happened because the need for that position became much more important after the vouchers program “landed in our office in the 11th hour.”
“We didn’t see this coming,” he said.
He said the PIO position was presented to the Interim Finance Committee as an information item, not an action item.
Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, said they just sort of “piecemealed it together” from existing funds, a statement Hewitt didn’t disagree with.
The second, Ford said, was when the office ignored the legislative direction not to fund the KickStart program that provides an initial grant to kindergarten students to encourage their parents to open an account in the office’s college savings plan.
“This office abuses its discretion too frequently,” said Ford. “Our direction was not to fund the KickStart program in 2017 and you’ve done it.”
Treasurer Dan Schwartz said he takes responsibility for that decision because he wanted to show lawmakers this time around how successful the program could be. He added he got permission from the College Savings Board.
“To a certain extent, this was not your decision to make,” he said.
“We are legislators, Mr. Schwartz,” said Ford. “You are not a legislator. You just slapped us in the face.”
Kieckhefer joined in at that point saying: “You can’t spit in the Legislature’s face and expect a warm handshake in return.”
Ford said after the committee meeting Schwartz’s action was “clearly an affront to the legislative body.”
About a dozen people – mostly representing education associations – appeared in Carson City and Las Vegas to testify on the vouchers program. Only two witnesses supported the program with the majority saying the $60 million Gov. Brian Sandoval put in the budget for vouchers should instead be used to expand critical programs in public schools.
Washoe Education Association President Nathan Anderson said that money could expand the Zoom Schools program helping institutions in poorer areas and other similar programs.
One young lady and a young man who said they went to parochial schools protested giving any money to organizations they described as homophobic and hostile to members of the LGBT community.
Wendell Newman of Washoe Valley questioned whether, if the parents move out of state, the state would be able to get back any of the voucher money.
Chris Daly of the Nevada State Education Association said $60 million should fund, “critical unmet needs in public education instead of serving as a government handout to wealthy parents sending their kids to expensive private schools.”
Asked after the meeting whether there was room for compromise, Ford said, “I am an unabashed advocate of public school education.”
Minority Leader Michael Roberson, author of the ESA legislation, has already said, “no ESAs, no budget.”