Is the ESA program dead in Nevada?

This story originally aired in the Las Vegas Sun on November 21, 2016. You can read the full version here.

With Democrats back in charge of the Legislature, things don’t look good for some of the state GOP’s key initiatives.

Among them: Nevada’s education savings account program, which was championed by a conservative majority a year ago but now faces an uncertain future.

The fight over the program — which would give approved families about $5,000 to use on private school tuition or other educational expenses — came to a head in the Nevada Supreme Court earlier this year. While justices upheld the right of ESAs to exist, they ruled that lawmakers would have to find funding outside the state school budget.

But that could put it in the crosshairs of Democrats and other public school advocates, some of whom have accused the program of being a giveaway to wealthy families who want to escape the public school system.

“Our position is that the ESA is dead,” said Sylvia Lazos, UNLV law professor and policy director for voucher opponent Educate Nevada Now. Her organization supported parents who sued the state over the program’s constitutionality.

That lawsuit, along with another filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, eventually led to the program being reviewed by the state Supreme Court.

Proponents cast the verdict as an overall victory for the program, necessitating only a minor “fix” to get it back on track. But that rhetoric obscured the deeper reality. The ESA program may have a right to exist under Nevada law, but it doesn’t have a right to use funding meant for public schools. In other words, the ESA is close to morphing into an entitlement program.

In a statement this week, Valeria Gurr, engagement director for pro-ESA group Nevada School Choice Partnership, said the organization was “hopeful” that the program would be funded.

It will be a tough sell in a Democrat-controlled Legislature overseeing a session already preoccupied with reforms to higher education. Not only that, activists like Lazos say that money would be better spent on programs with proven benefits, like pre-kindergarten. “Now it becomes an issue of, do we provide this kind of choice or other kinds of choices?” Lazos said.

Gov. Brian Sandoval announced last week that he’d find a way to fund the ESA in the upcoming state budget, but details have been sparse.

According to Scott Hammond, the Republican state senator who introduced the program in a bill last year, the plan is to establish a cap on the number of beneficiaries but still allow anybody to apply, regardless of income. Data show a majority of the more than 8,000 applicants for ESAs have come from the wealthiest parts of Las Vegas.

“If we’re taking the program out of the (education budget), we’re going to have to forecast,” Hammond said. The state would have to be able to estimate how many families would take advantage of the program or costs could quickly spin out of control, he said.

Whether Democrats will work to help revive the program is anybody’s guess.

“The Legislature wanted this and there’s clearly enough interest in this. I would hope that Democrats out there would want to fund this,” he said.