Nevada GOP governor nominee pushes plan that could take $300 million from public schools

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Joe Lombardo wants to create a program of education saving accounts that experts say could take hundreds of millions of dollars from already underfunded Nevada public school systems.

Joe Lombardo, the Republican nominee for governor of Nevada, says he wants to create a school voucher program that estimates show could cut $300 million from public schools in the state. The program could divert state funding to private and parochial schools that have the right to discriminate against students and staff on the basis of gender identity or religion.

The campaign website of Lombardo, the sheriff of Clark County, of which Las Vegas is the seat, says: "To ensure every child has access to the best education possible, Joe will implement school choice initiatives that empower Nevada families. By expanding access to charter schools, providing more opportunity scholarships, and investing in Education Savings Accounts, Joe believes that we can make our education system work better for every student and every family."

A program of education savings accounts was enacted by the Republican-controlled Nevada Legislature in 2015. According to an FAQ posted to the Nevada state treasurer's website, "An ESA is an account established to provide state funds to pay for approved education expenses for qualified students. The program's main purpose is to provide options for parents to freely choose how and where to educate their children with a grant from the state."

The ESA program, however, was never funded or implemented. The Nevada Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that the program was not constitutional because it had no funding mechanism and would unlawfully take funds intended for the public school system. In 2019, the Democratic-controlled Legislature repealed the program entirely.

Lombardo says he wants to revive an ESA program if he is successful in his race to unseat incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak in November.

Education advocates say that ESAs will take money away from already underfunded public schools and send it to private and parochial schools that could reject students based on such factors as their sexuality, gender identity, or learning disabilities.

Beverly Rogers, chair of the Rogers Foundation, a Clark County education and arts charity, filed a lawsuit in February against Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske over efforts to revive the ESA program. Rogers said in a statement published by the Nevada Independent: "Let's be clear, we are not talking about school choice, we're talking about the school's choice to reject students because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, religious affiliation or lack thereof, or because they need additional resources to succeed. We support public schools because they serve all students."

Rory Reid, the foundation's chief executive officer, filed suit to stop a ballot initiative on reestablishing the program that was backed by right-wing political groups.

Both lawsuits were successful, with the state Supreme Court ruling in September that ESAs would be an unfunded mandate in violation of the Nevada Constitution.

In a statement posted on its website in April after initial lower court rulings against the ballot initiative, the Rogers Foundation noted: "This failed constitutional initiative would have been one of the most extreme voucher measures in the country, putting taxpayers on the hook for at least $300 million to pay for wealthy families already enrolled in private school either through raising taxes on the community or by deep cuts to public district and charter schools or other community services."

Nevada public schools were already ranked last in 2021 by the nonprofit Education Week news outlet out of all 50 states for average per-pupil spending.

In the statement posted to the Rogers Foundation's website in April, Beverly Rogers was quoted saying: "We should not pay hundreds of millions of dollars for a scheme that gives handouts to the wealthy already in private school, hurts our most vulnerable students, and permits rampant discrimination and lack of accountability. It goes to show that these groups cannot deceive our community. They have no right to and I am glad they are being held accountable for their fraudulent tactics."

Lombardo has made education a central focus of his campaign for governor.

Appearing at a Sept. 21 campaign event at a church in Las Vegas with Virginia GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin, Lombardo said he's running to be "the education governor" and cited the Youngkin gubernatorial campaign's use of education to win in a state that Republican presidential candidates haven't won since 2004.

The Nevada gubernatorial election is seen as highly competitive.

President Joe Biden carried the state by a slim 2.4-point margin in 2020.

Polling shows the race between Lombardo and Sisolak is close, with Sisolak holding a 1.2% lead, according to FiveThirtyEight's average.

Inside Elections, a nonpartisan political handicapping outlet, rates the race a toss-up.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.