Sandoval Provides Details Of School Voucher Bill

CARSON CITY – Gov. Brian Sandoval today elaborated on the details of a bill he is proposing to establish a school voucher system in Nevada.

The proposal would allow parents to receive a state-funded, per pupil subsidy to opt out of public schools in favor of private schools, including religious schools.

The stipend, or voucher, would help families pay expenses at the private schools.

Sandoval has based eligibility for the voucher system on family income, said Dale Erquiaga, the governor’s senior adviser. That means that families below or near the poverty line would receive a voucher of greater value than a family well above the poverty line.

Erquiaga at first said some students may not be eligible for vouchers due to the needs-based scale for vouchers. Speaking at a weekly press briefing, a reporter asked why some students would be excluded.

Erquiaga then said that the vouchers would be available on a declining scale; as family incomes increase, the voucher level decreases.

“There is some level where you’ll get the lowest amount possible,” he said.

That lowest amount would be the 50 percent of the current per pupil funding, according to the Las Vegas Sun.

That would put the lowest voucher value around $2,500 according to per pupil funding numbers available from the state’s 2011 Education Data Book. The maximum voucher level, available only to the neediest families, would be the full per pupil spending of around $5,192.

The governor’s office has only submitted a request that legislative employees draft the bill. That means there is not yet bill language for the public to read.

Erquiaga also said that provisions allowing vouchers for homeschooling were not part of the bill.

Sandoval had pushed for a school voucher program during his campaign. He had argued such a program would allow families more options in selecting the best education for their children.

Theoretically, more choice would lead to greater competition, which would in turn lead to improvements at all schools.

Erquiaga was unable to offer a specific dollar figure regarding how much a voucher program would cost. Earlier estimates had cited a $100 million cost.

Erquiaga said there would be a fiscal impact, but the $100 million estimate was too high because it would mean all students in public schools would opt for a voucher.

The bill will have a fiscal impact, but one unlikely to take effect for several years.

That’s because the bill would require a constitutional amendment in order to overcome what the Sandoval administration says are legal barriers requiring a constitutional change.

There is currently a provision in the Nevada constitution that prohibits using public tax dollars for religious purposes. Since the Sandoval bill would allow families to use vouchers for all types of schools, a constitutional change would be necessary.

Article 11, Section 10 of the Nevada constitution is a provision called a Blaine Amendment dating back to statehood, which prohibits the expenditure of public funds for “sectarian purposes.”

Courts have rejected voucher school programs in other states because of these Blaine Amendments.

Changing the Nevada constitution is a complex process that would take as many as six years to accomplish, including voter approval.

Repealing the Blaine Amendment would require the Legislature to pass Sandoval’s proposal in two consecutive legislative sessions and then have it go to a vote of the people, which could not occur before 2014.

A handful of state lawmakers have tried and failed over the years to establish a voucher plan for Nevada students, giving parents a share of their taxes spent on public education so they can pick a school that best meets the needs of their children.

Sandoval Proposes Other Education Bills

The governor has also introduced two bills pertaining to education that include ideas he talked about during his campaign. One would end social promotion and assign children letter grades based on student performance.

Erquiaga characterized the other bill as an “education accountability” bill that would end teacher tenure and end a “last in, first out” policy whereby the most recently hired teachers are the first teachers released during layoffs. The bill would also establish an evaluation system for principals and teachers.

Erquiaga said the governor is aware that Democrats in the Assembly introduced similar reform bills during this past week. He said the administration plans to learn more about those bills and see where the bills might be merged.

–Sean Whaley, Carson City Bureau Chief, contributed to this report.–