Newspaper column: Education savings accounts would increase public school funds

Nevada’s education savings account (ESA) law is in dire straits thanks to a convoluted state Supreme Court ruling that said ESAs are constitutional but the funding mechanism devised by lawmakers was not and the fact that this year’s roster of lawmakers, who could fix that funding flaw, includes a majority of Democrats in both the Assembly and state Senate. Not a single Democrat voted for the ESA law in 2015.

Disturbingly, the argument being foisted by the opponents of ESAs is a bald-faced lie.

The opponents posit that letting parents keep a small portion of their tax money to allow them to take their children out of public schools and spend that money on private schooling, tutoring or even home schooling reduces the funds to support public education. In reality, the exact opposite is the case. Per pupil funding would actually increase.

Under the law, parents who opt out of sending their children to public schools would be given an education savings account that would equal a portion of the statewide average the state spends per public school pupil, currently that is about $5,700. Low-income parents and parents with special needs children would get 100 percent of that amount, while all others would get 90 percent, or about $5,100 currently.

Thus far, about 8,000 families have applied for ESAs.

This past month ESA opponents sent a letter to state Attorney General Adam Laxalt and state Treasurer Dan Schwartz demanding Schwartz stop accepting applications for ESAs while the law is in limbo.

In an accompanying press release, UNLV law professor Sylvia Lazos, policy director for Educate Nevada Now, one of the litigants that challenged the ESA law, declared, “It’s time for Treasurer Schwartz to face the fact that ESA vouchers were declared unconstitutional because they would have drained tens of millions of dollars from Nevada’s public schools, with Clark County schools losing over $30 million in the first year alone. By blocking this program, we’ve prevented further cuts to public school budgets, which would have increased class sizes and reduced essential programs for students, including English language learners and other students in need of additional supports.”

The problem with this is that the ESAs are earmarked only to state funding — and only 90 percent of that in the vast majority of cases — and have no impact whatsoever on public school funds derived from local taxes and federal revenue.

According to National Education Association’s most recent figures, Nevada public schools spend nearly $9,000 per pupil on average. So, for every pupil who takes the $5,100 savings account, there is about $3,900 more in funding for public education for those who remain — in less crowded classrooms.

In fact, the impact is far greater in many rural counties where the ratio of local funding is even greater due to mining related tax revenue and other factors. According to data for fiscal year 2014 provided to lawmakers by the Legislative Counsel Bureau, local revenue accounts for more than 80 percent of public school funding in Eureka, Humboldt and Lander counties, while the state provides only 10 percent or less.

The state provides about half or more of the K-12 funding in Churchill, Lincoln, Lyon, Mineral, Nye, Pershing and White Pine. Statewide, federal revenue accounts for more than 9 percent of funding.

This discrepancy is even more pronounced when one takes into account that state funding for each school district is adjusted to account for lower local revenue and higher costs, such as transportation in rural areas.

The distributive school account approved in 2015, for example, sets aside for Esmeralda County $24,331 per pupil; Lincoln, $10,534; White Pine, $7,799; Eureka, $9,633; Mineral, $8,980; Clark $5,512; but Lander gets only $4,374.

But the education savings account in each of those counties is still only 90 percent of the statewide average, or $5,100.

Thus, when public schools have fewer pupils to teach, transport and feed, there is more money for those remaining.

So, when lawmakers meet in Carson City in the coming weeks they should take the opportunity to increase K-12 per pupil funding by finding a constitutional funding source for education savings accounts.

It is simple math.


A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.


Editorial: Premise of lawsuit challenging education savings account law is flawed

This past week a second lawsuit was filed in state court challenging the constitutionality of a state law creating education savings accounts that would allow parents to use a portion of the state funding that would otherwise be used in public schools to be spent on private school tuition or homeschooling.

An earlier lawsuit filed by the ACLU challenges the law because the savings accounts could be used for sectarian schools and the state constitution prohibits using tax money for any religious purpose. The issue there is whether money once in the hands of parents is still tax money.

The latest suit, Lopez v. Schwartz, filed in the 1st Judicial District Court in Carson City by a group called Educate Nevada Now, claims the law reduces state funding for public schools to below the level determined to be sufficient. The suit repeatedly refers to the law, Senate Bill 302, as a voucher law, though the law never uses that word and mentions only savings accounts.

Sylvia Lazos

Sylvia Lazos, policy director for Educate Nevada Now, said in a press release, “This lawsuit does not challenge the right of parents to choose a private or religious school for their child. But it does seek to ensure that public school funding is not diverted and depleted by subsidizing that choice.”

The lawsuit argues, “The voucher statute further violates the Legislature’s constitutional obligation to establish and maintain a ‘uniform system of public schools. … The drafters of the Nevada Constitution understood the importance of establishing a ‘uniform system’ of ‘common’ or public schools sufficiently funded to prepare all Nevada children to become engaged, productive and contributing citizens; schools that all Nevadan children can attend regardless of beliefs, wealth or ability.”

Actually, the drafters of the state constitution were fairly lax about this “uniform system of public schools” wording, writing specifically, “The legislature shall provide for a uniform system of common schools, by which a school shall be established and maintained in each school district at least six months in every year …”

The lawsuit also huffs that the constitution “mandates that the Legislature maintain and support those schools by appropriating the funding it deems sufficient for their operation.”

Well, apparently the Legislature, since it passed SB302, deemed it sufficient for public schools to be funded with only 10 percent of the funding formula for students it does not have to teach.

The state currently distributes about $5,700 per public school pupil. The law allows the state Treasurer to set up savings accounts for parents who choose to take their children out of public schools. For most the annual account would be equal to 90 percent of the public school per-pupil state funding allotment or a little more than $5,000. Parents earning less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level would get 100 percent of state funding.

Unstated in all the falderal about sufficient funding is the fact public schools are not solely funded by the state. They also receive local and federal funding.

According to National Education Association figures published in May, Nevada schools spend nearly $9,000 per pupil. So, for every pupil who takes the $5,000 savings account, there is about $4,000 per pupil in funding for public education those who remain – in less crowded classrooms.

After the second suit was filed, Gov. Brian Sandoval released a statement saying, “My office was notified by Educate Nevada Now that its representatives would file an additional lawsuit against Nevada’s sweeping school choice effort. My position has not changed. I strongly support school choice and I firmly believe that an expedited hearing and, if necessary, a final ruling by the Nevada Supreme Court is in the best interest of all parties.”

Sandoval said he hopes the two cases will be consolidated and expedited to remove any uncertainty for parents and educators.

The law takes effect Jan. 1 and first savings accounts could be established in the spring if the courts can make short work of these suits, and we call on them to do so.

The courts have a history of expediting child custody cases, and these could be equated to that level of significance and timeliness.

A version of this editorial appeared this past week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel, the Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

Opponents of ESAs want everyone to suffer equally

Apparently the opponents of the state’s new education savings account (ESA) law have a twisted egalitarian view of how our democracy is supposed to work: All people are created equal and, by Jove, they all should stay that way.

In an op-ed piece in today’s newspaper Sylvia Lazos, policy director of something called Educate Nevada Now, first states that Nevada has just about the worst performing public education system in the nation but then argues that no one should be allowed to opt out because this would leave the public schools with a higher percentage of at-risk pupils.

The ESA program would give parents, whose children have been in public school for 100 consecutive days, with about $5,000 per child to leave public schools and pay for private schooling or homeschooling.

Lazos calculates that, if all the 20,000 children currently in private schools choose to use ESAs, it would cut $100 million to public school budgets. That assumes the parents of those 20,000 students would pull them out of private school and put them in those poor-performing public schools for 100 days.

The part of the equation opponents of ESAs neglect to mention is that Nevada currently spends nearly $9,000 per pupil per year, according to National Education Association figures published in May. For every student who opts out, the public schools would have nearly $4,000 to spend on those who remain — in less crowded classrooms. They keep demanding more money, so there it is.

Winston Churchill:

“The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”

Sylvia Lazos (R-J file photo by Jerry Henkel)