There are more than 2,300 students currently enrolled in Nevada’s Educational Choice Scholarship Program, otherwise known as Opportunity Scholarships. It gives students from low and middle-income families aid to help pay tuition at qualified private K-12 schools. While the program has remained popular since its inception, Democratic leaders are considering a measure that would cap the program at current levels.
It’s a bit of a gloomy day in Southwest Reno, but for the students of Newton Learning Center, it’s a day to have fun and celebrate.
School leaders set up an outdoor carnival with music, snacks and games; however, in typical fashion, the kids have bypassed the bag toss and face painting, heading straight to a massive trailer filled with TVs and nearly every video game system made in the last 20 years.
Newton is a unique program that specializes in helping students with autism both academically and socially.
"What we do is we work with them academically and socially, and give them the skills that they need to be able to function successfully in a comprehensive campus," say RJ Larrieu, the school’s director. "A lot of our kids come in and we transition them right back out. We don't look to keep them for K-12."
But that help comes with a hefty price tag. Tuition runs about $850 a month.
For Carrie Gonzales, the tuition is worth every cent. Since her son Joshua began going to the school, she’s seen tremendous progress.
"For the first time in his entire life, and he just turned 10, he asked me how my day was," Gonzales says. "I said, 'Baby, my day was great. Did you learn that at school today?' And he said, 'Yes, and I learned how to answer it, too.' It seems like such a small thing, but in 10 years it never occurred to him to ask me how my day was or to see the other person's point of view. It's little things like that that are just changing his life."
And yet, Gonzales worries. Over the course of his time at Newton, her family has begun to dip into their savings. She says it’s only a matter of time before they’ll be forced to pull Joshua from the program.
"It's really hard," she says. "When I first told my husband about this school, I thought he would never even want to schedule a tour because, really, it's not in our budget. We're upside down right now with our budget just paying for this. We're just making it work because this is what our son needs."
To help offset the costs, Gonzales began looking into what are called Opportunity Scholarships. Unfortunately, her family doesn’t meet the income requirements.
That’s because when the Republican-controlled Nevada Legislature created the program in 2015, it was designed to give low or middle-income families who make 300% above the federal poverty level or less a scholarship to private schools. To pay for it, businesses get a dollar-for-dollar payroll tax credit for donations made to qualified scholarship funds. When the fund was created, it started off with $5 million but was set up to grow by 10% annually.
"It's sort of heartbreaking, to tell you the truth, the stories when you listen to these families and what a difference it's made for their child to have the opportunity to go to a school that meets their needs," says Republican Senator Heidi Gansert of Reno.
Earlier this session, she introduced Senate Bill 351, a measure that would simplify the fiscal components. It also removes the income requirements for students with disabilities. Gansert says the bill helps extend aid to more of the state’s neediest families.
"We all know that education is critically important and it can change the path of that child's life and their entire family," she says.
Even though every Republican in the state Senate, and nearly half of the Republicans in the Assembly have signed on to the measure, it’s unlikely the bill will ever make it out to the floor.
That’s because Democratic leaders are trying to move the other way.
This week, the Senate Revenue and Economic Development Committee approved Assembly Bill 458. The measure would cap the program at its current level, more than $6.6 million.
Speaker of the Assembly, Democrat Jason Frierson of Las Vegas, has carried the measure through the process. He says the law’s 10% growth requirement would eventually place a burden on Nevada’s general education fund and is not sustainable.
"It just makes little sense to me from a fiscal responsibility standpoint to artificially build in 10% growth each year for something that would be out of control within a short amount of time," says Frierson. "In order for us to continue to provide this service to families and to students that are receiving it, I think it warrants stability and certainty and making sure that we're being fiscally responsible with our entire budget."
However, stability may not be the only reasoning. Opportunity Scholarships are, at the end of the day, a school choice program, similar to the state’s beleaguered voucher program known as Education Savings Accounts, which Democrats have fiercely opposed, including Governor Steve Sisolak.
It’s a sentiment echoed by public education groups, including the state’s teacher’s union, which has voiced support for the cap.
"Opportunity scholarships are a back door voucher," says Natha Anderson, the President of the Washoe Education Association. "I think the larger argument is that we're not funding our schools adequately. We need to start getting more funding to our public schools. Any sort of diversion is hurting our kids."
But opponents of the cap, including Republican Senator Ben Kieckhefer of Reno, don’t buy that argument.
"A modest growth rate in this program is still reasonable as compared to the total dollar figures that we keep putting into traditional public education," says Kieckhefer. "This is a sliver of what's available, and there are thousands of kids on a waiting list to use this program who are not going to be able to access it now. I think that's a shame."
Speaking during the public comment portion of a recent hearing on the measure, Fallon resident Brian Anderson told lawmakers about his grandson’s experience in public school. He says his grandson, who has mental health diagnosis, has done well since moving to a private school that better understands his needs.
"I am not here to be bagging on public education, to be honest, but to let you know that people like myself that are barely above the poverty line, we need to have the funding for schools," Anderson says. "Our public schools are not doing the job that they should be doing. I don't know why. All I know, is that I'm responsible for this young man. I'm responsible for my daughter. I want them to have the best education possible."
To further add fuel to the fire, lawmakers have opted not to renew a one-time cash infusion of $20 million made in 2017. Once that money dries up, more than 900 students could lose their aid. If a cap is put in place, it’s a scenario that will likely become a reality.
Editor's Note: When this story first published it said Senate Bill 351 removed the 10 percent growth function written into the Opportunity Scholarship law. The measure, in fact, retains that provision. This story has been updated to reflect that correction.