Gov. Brian Sandoval signed a bill Monday creating scholarships so lower-income families can afford private school tuition, declaring that Nevada now has true school choice.
The signing ceremony was held inside the historic Fourth Ward School in Virginia City, a stately four-story building that was christened in 1876 and now operates as a museum. Sandoval held up an antique leaflet found in the floorboards of a school that urged voters to approve the bonds that ultimately financed Fourth Ward.
“I think it really points out how much of a priority education was for Nevadans, even back in 1876,” he said after the ceremony, drawing a parallel to his own push to raise taxes to fund education. “Nevadans are ready, willing and able to invest in the kids.”
AB165 creates the Nevada Educational Choice Scholarship Program, which gives companies credit toward their modified business tax bill if they donate to a qualifying scholarship organization. Scholarships would go to students whose household income doesn’t exceed 300 percent of the poverty level.
The measure caps state tax credits at $10.5 million over two years, and it limits scholarships to $7,755 apiece. If students max out their allotment, the fund could provide about 600 scholarships in its first year, and capacity would grow by 10 percent each year.
“This is going to make a true difference,” Sandoval said.
Democratic opponents say the scholarships divert money from public education and are not targeted enough to the lowest-income families. The income cutoff is around $73,000 a year for a family of four, so about 68 percent of Nevada students would qualify.
“It serves as a tax break for wealthier families as opposed to an opportunity for lower-income families to attend private school,” said Sen. Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas, who said a threshold of 185 percent of the poverty level would be more appropriate.
State Superintendent Dale Erquiaga said the process of certifying the scholarship organizations and setting regulations will begin almost immediately, so the organizations can start recruiting students who will use the scholarships in the fall.
Erquiaga said there are currently 203 private schools in Nevada, but he expects more schools will be launched now that they can count on an additional funding stream.
Former special education teacher Melissa Morgan said the creation of the scholarships spurred her to set up Academy for Innovative Minds, a private school she plans to open in a low-income area of East Las Vegas in September.
“This creates that environment so we have a very diverse student population,” Morgan said.
One of the hallmarks of Morgan’s school, which is expected to enroll about 135 students in the first year, is a freestyle Friday schedule that will feature guest speakers or community service activities.
The structure is a response to parents frustrated with bullying or test-driven teaching in public schools, Morgan said. It could be used as a laboratory for teaching methods that could someday be incorporated in public schools, she said.
She’s aware of opposition to the scholarship program, Morgan said.
“You can agree with it or disagree with it,” she said. “But let’s use it to create those schools for kids that are needed.”