Lawmakers scold state treasurer over handling of education programs

A Senate Finance Committee hearing today to review Educational Savings Accounts, the Nevada College Kick Start Program account and other accounts managed by the Nevada Treasurer’s Office morphed into a critique of the office and of the seeming willingness of Treasurer Dan Schwartz to ignore the Legislature.

Created by the Republican-controlled 2015 Legislature with Senate Bill 302, ESAs were intended to give parents a percentage of the average amount Nevada spends on education per student. Parents could use the money to pay for children to be educated in part or entirely outside the public school system.

Despite legal challenges to ESAs, including the Nevada Supreme Court ruling that the funding mechanism for ESAs was unconstitutional, the Treasurer’s Office has continued working on the program.

That work, as well as continued work on the College Kick Start Program, which the Legislature also had issues with last session, drew the ire of committee members.

“So it was an end-around what we intended and what was in the governor’s budget,” Sen. Aaron Ford, D-Las, Vegas, said about a public information officer whom Ford said the treasurer was using to convince parents to use the ESA program.

“We didn’t reject the enhancements (the increased funding the treasurer requested),” said Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, voicing similar concerns with the Kick Start Program. “We said we would talk about it in the next session. Again, you can’t spit in the Legislature’s face and expect a warm handshake in return. You’re putting us in a tough spot.”

Because today’s hearing was a budget review and not a general discussion about ESAs, the committee’s questions were about logistics: What the treasurer’s employees were doing, how and when ESAs would be funded and how forthcoming the office had been with statistics about who was applying for ESAs.

“I’m a little confused,” Ford said, speaking to Grant Hewitt, the chief of staff for the Treasurer’s Office. “A couple of weeks ago, someone from your office, maybe a PIO, sent out to a newspaper in Las Vegas information about demographics. I’m a little confused, and I want to offer the context that we’ve been asking this office for a year and a half for that demographic information.”

Hewitt said he could not have provided the data sooner because it only recently became available, and he gave it to the committee as soon as it was compiled.

“We have no interest in hiding the football here,” Hewitt said. “We are interested in providing clear and concise data, and we will continue to do so.”

Ford was even harsher in his questions when asking about Kick Start.

“This office abuses its discretion too often,” he said. “The treasurer was not to fund Kick Start, and you’ve done it anyway. Please offer me an explanation.”

Schwartz said he wouldn’t get into a constitutional debate over who has the power to do what. But he admitted Ford was right that the Legislature told him not to work on Kick Start but he did anyway.

“As far as College Kick Start goes, the answer is, yes, you’re right,” Schwartz said. “You were opposed to our expanding the program. But had we followed that directive, we would have been back here with nothing to show. Again, I’ll take responsibility for it. It’s up to you to decide if that’s right or wrong.”

Ford was not placated.

“This is entirely out of the scope of what you were supposed to do,” he said. “We have to make the decisions about what we allocate and program — the money that is going to be used in and how we want it to be used.

“We are the Legislature, Dan Schwartz. You’re not the Legislature.”

While the specifics of the treasurer’s work on ESAs and on Kick Start generated conflict, the committee found time to hear testimony about whether ESAs were generally good or bad for education in Nevada.

At the beginning of his testimony, Schwartz said school choice was needed to improve education in Nevada.

“I’m a product of the Chicago public school system, and I couldn’t be happier with my education,” Schwartz said. “But both you and I believe that our standing as 51 out of 50 is unacceptable, despite spending billions and billions of dollars on education. It should be the (parent’s) decision, not ours, that determines the best school and the best environment for our children.”

None of the senators expressed an opinion on ESAs, but the committee heard several witnesses, citizens and representatives from interested groups.

Sylvia Lazos, the policy director for Educate Nevada Now, a group that has fought against the ESAs in Nevada, told the committee that the program should be dead already.

“When we take money out of education to fund vouchers, that’s unconstitutional,” she said. “When the Legislature sets money aside for education, you have to leave it alone. It’s been our position and it continues to be that SB302 is dead.”

In addition to Lazos, the committee also heard from representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Nevada Education Association, a group called Honoring Our Public Education, or HOPE, and several private citizens, all of whom were against the funding of ESAs.

Other than employees of the Treasurer’s Office, only two people, two mothers testifying from Las Vegas, offered testimony in support of the ESA program.

The hearing was the first bite that the Legislature has taken in regard to ESAs. The Assembly will also review it as a budget item, and the education committees of the Senate and Assembly will likely address the issue before the legislature finishes its work for the year.