News - February 8, 2017 - by Ray Hagar

By Ray Hagar
Nevada Newsmakers

The Republicans in the state Senate have laid down their demands: No ESAs, no budget deals.

The leader of the Republicans in the Assembly is also a strong proponent of the Education Savings Accounts but will not take the Senate's all-or-nothing attitude.

"We have not quite drawn the line as deeply as that but we certainly know that the ESAs are one of our top priorities, if not the top priority of the session," said Republican Minority Floor Leader Paul Anderson.

Anderson's key demand is that the ESAs should be open to all children, no matter their parents' income. He is against any financial-means testing to determine eligibility. Means testing has been mentioned by some as way to administer the program and stretch state dollars.

"I think what is fair is to make sure every kid has the same opportunity," Anderson said.

Democrats, who hold majorities in both houses of the Legislature, mostly oppose the ESAs. They feel ESAs would take funding away from Nevada's struggling public-school system. However, others feel a compromise could be worked out.

The ESAs passed in the 2015 Legislature when the GOP held majorities in both houses. It provided up to $5,100 of state tax money per student to parents to help cover the cost of private or parochial school.

However, the Nevada Supreme Court said the ESA funding mechanism was unconstitutional. So Republicans had to re-work the bill for the 2017 session.

Anderson noted that Nevada's Opportunity Scholarships, passed by the 2015 Legislature, are means tested.

Opportunity Scholarships are tied to tax credits given to businesses that donate to non-profit scholarship organizations. The organizations then use the money to provide grants for K-12 tuition to students in families with incomes up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level.

Anderson said Wednesday that Opportunity Scholarship can give eligible parents up to $7,000 or $8,000 per child.

Democrats in 2015 felt that the financial-means test threshold for Opportunity Scholarship was too high and and amounted to a slush fund for wealthy families to send their children to private and religious schools.

Now, Anderson wants no financial thresholds for the ESAs.

"The goal of the Education Savings Account is to have the least amount of restrictions on it as possible so that every parent can have a similar opportunity for each kid and their very unique circumstances," Anderson said.

"We have other programs that are means tested and limit where those dollars can go," he said. "(Parents could) even put those two programs together, if you can get an Opportunity Scholarship and an ESA account, you can take those monies and do with it what you think is appropriate for your children.

"It is a tool in a tool chest," Anderson said of the ESAs. "It is one program on top of many others that allow parents to get their best education for their kids."