Legislators, such as Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert, went to work introducing SB220, which would expand the Opportunity Scholarship program to serve approximately 6,000 students who cannot afford another educational option to attend schools of their choice if their current assigned public school is not working for them.
SB220 would also increase eligibility for 400 percent of the federal poverty line, children with disabilities and children of first responders. However, because Democrats in Nevada have control of both chambers and are vehemently against educational choice, SB220 was never set to get a hearing.
As a matter of fact, Democrats in the Silver State have continuously denied the Opportunity Scholarships a hearing and use education as a political pawn incessantly pointing at school choice as a way to defund public education — a talking point that could not be further from the truth. Giving families 5 percent of options won’t defund public schools. Instead, it will bring opportunities to those who need them.
Enter Lombardo, a leader not afraid to go against the grain and willing to expend political capital for the children instead of accepting the status quo.
At the end of March, the governor’s office introduced AB400, legislation that would significantly improve school choice in Nevada with the help of the Opportunity Scholarship program, charter schools and other educational provisions.
All-in-all, the robust bill would increase the eligibility requirement for Opportunity Scholarships to 500 percent of the federal poverty line, while creating the Office of School Choice to help families with education options. The bill also adds additional funding to expand the Opportunity Scholarship to more deserving students and families, and includes transportation funding for charter schools.
Gov. Lombardo’s strategy regarding school choice in Nevada is bold. He is following the Florida educational model, which has made it one of the strongest states for educational freedom in the country. Florida ranks No. 1 when it comes to providing educational opportunities and freedom to families, and it has led the nation in school choice options for students and families for the past two decades.
Leaders in the Sunshine State have worked hard to ensure that funding is directed toward students rather than institutions, and they have expanded choice programs that now are serving over 170,000 students. Throughout this time, Florida’s public school options have also improved — a rising tide lifts all boats.
The largest and longest-running program in Florida is a tax credit program, the equivalent of the Opportunity Scholarship in Nevada. Students in Florida are currently outperforming their peers across the country in terms of academic performance. Before the turn of the century, the high school graduation rate barely surpassed 50 percent, but it is now approaching 90 percent.
Fostering parental rights and school choice resulted in academic gains, propelling Florida to third place in the nation in education quality.
Parents love having school choice for many different reasons, including academic quality, safe environments, location, disciplinary policies, class size, extracurricular activities and diversity, among other topics. Families want the freedom to choose an education provider that meets their needs, whether it is in the form of homeschooling, microschools, private schools, charter schools, magnet schools or even traditional public schools.
Nevada leaders should be supportive of these options, especially after the recent Data Dive: 2023 Legislative Polling that was released showing school choice is not only popular, it has a 71 percent bipartisan support across all demographics in the state. The highest backing comes from Hispanic and Black voters at 74 percent and 81 percent, respectively.
To truly bring educational choice to our state, we need systemic reform of the current education system that is not serving every student as they deserve.
The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores show that the academic achievement gaps among Nevada children have widened, and we know this is true across all ethnicities. However, the academic losses were more profound among Hispanic and African American children. Fourth grade Black students are now behind by approximately 2 ½ years and half a year in reading, and Hispanics by about 1 ½ years in reading and about the same in math.
Gov. Lombardo rightly stated that we all have a responsibility to fix things. The reality is that there is a division between politicians on education in Nevada. Many lawmakers have listened to their constituents and embraced school choice, while others persist in supporting only the status quo.
The education policy making process has become a political game with our children as the proverbial football, being punted time after time. In light of empirical data like the NAEP scores, continuing that game is unacceptable.
Having been a school choice advocate for the better part of a decade now many things have changed. I am even seeing a swell of support for educational freedom and charter schools among Democrats — albeit quietly. Whether because of the pandemic or the rapid decline in education standards, party affiliation should take a backseat to our students’ needs.
Now, there is a clear opportunity to put students first. As an education reformer, a mother and a Nevadan, I call on our legislature to prioritize our children over politics and be as audacious as our governor. Leaders in both parties must stop obstructing opportunity for the less fortunate and step up to the challenge to make the American dream attainable for all students — regardless of ZIP code or economic status.
Valeria Gurr serves as a senior fellow for the American Federation for Children. She is an advocate for educational choice, particularly for underserved families, and founded la Federacion Americana Para los Niños. This column was originally published by the Nevada Independent.