Negotiations Revive Education Debates In Nevada Statehouse

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — A mining tax proposal introduced in the Nevada statehouse has revived longstanding debates about charter schools and tax credits that help pay for private school tuition.

With less than a day remaining before the Legislature adjourns, Democrats must sway Republicans in both the state Senate and Assembly to win the two-thirds support needed to pass a bill to increase taxes on mines. As part of the negotiations, they're considering bolstering “school choice” programs that Republicans have long supported and teachers' unions have long despised.

Tucked deep into the mining tax proposal are provisions to maintain funding for the “Opportunity Scholarships” program that the then-Republican majority created in 2015. The program allows businesses to receive tax credits on donations that go toward paying the tuition of low- and middle-income students who want to attend private schools. The bill is still being amended as negotiations continue.

The proposal passed through the Assembly on Monday afternoon with all Democrats and two Republicans in support. It awaits a final vote in the state Senate.

Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson said on Sunday that it was a needed concession to give the bill a chance to pass.

“This is one of the areas of this bill that took a significant amount of work, collaboration, discussion, heartburn, and — quite frankly for some — holding their nose and nodding their head,” he said.

Opportunity Scholarships have been championed by the "school choice” movement as a way to expand opportunities for students assigned to low-performing public schools. In 2019, with Democrats in control, the Legislature capped the amount of tax credits that could be offered in the future.

Valeria Gurr, the director of the Nevada School Choice Coalition, said the program provided more options to low-income families looking for the best education for their children. The debate has not changed significantly, but private schools being open and public schools doing remote learning during the pandemic highlighted educational inequities and helped drum up support for the program, she said.

“Even if you have a perfect education system, there’s going to be always families that want something different,” she said.

The program has been criticized heavily for siphoning millions of dollars away from traditional public schools as the state works to raise per-pupil spending, which currently ranks 44th in the nation. Nevada State Education Association President Brian Rippet, who opposes the program, likened the program to other education privatization initiatives.

He said he thought teachers’ unions and other advocates had successfully redirected the dollars to public schools last session and was disappointed with the reversal.

“The school privateers are not stopping even once we thought they were defeated, and we thought that we had all the money directed to public schools. There’s a whole apparatus that is trying to defund public schools, so the opening is troubling,” said Nevada State Education Association President Brian Rippet.

Amid the mining tax negotiations, the Senate Finance Committee on Saturday also introduced a proposal to allocate funding 12 charter schools in 2022 and 9 in 2023 that would have received less under the state’s new education funding formula.

A last-minute amendment to the mining tax proposal also guaranteed $15 million for the State Public Charter School Authority for grants to address learning loss.

Republican Assemblywoman Jill Tolles, who voted for the measure, said it was important to guarantee that charter schools weren't excluded from education funding and future mining tax revenue, particularly as schools try to buoy students who struggled through the pandemic.

“It was important to recognize that our charter schools are public schools too. Those students have experienced learning loss over this past year, like their counterparts in the traditional schools. So to have that parity, it was important that they were included,” Tolles said.

As recently as 2015, the “school choice” movement dominated Nevada. That year, the Republican-controlled statehouse created voucher-like Education Savings Accounts to provide public funds to parents to send children to private schools. It also created Achievement School Districts, which converted the state's lowest performing schools to charters.

Democrats have gradually reversed the policies, depriving funding for Education Savings Accounts the following session and terminating the Achievement School District program in 2019.

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Sam Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.