Episode 82: No More Compromise – We Need Educational Choice Now!

Michael Schaus

Free to Offend Episode 82 | Guest: Valeria Gurr, American Federation for Children 

Unfortunately, even with $2 billion in additional funding for traditional K-12 education, the Democratic majority in Nevada’s legislature couldn’t be bothered to throw a few scraps toward educational choice programs.

Valeria Gurr, with the American Federation for Children, joined the program to discuss what we can learn from the 2023 legislative session … as well as what it will take for Nevada to (finally) join the growing number of states that offer families a choice of educational options.

Read the Transcript

Valeria Gurr: Iowa, Utah, Kansas, Florida, Tennessee, Nebraska, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Montana, Indiana, New Hampshire, Wisconsin. Those are all the states, including Alabama that passed a school choice this year.

Michael Schaus: This is Free to Offend. I’m your host, Michael Schaus. Okay, look, legislative session is over. There were some things that we could probably be happy about. Some things that we really, certainly not going to be happy about. Let’s go ahead and talk about one of those depressing things, and that is the utter lack of educational freedom that really resulted from the Democrats just saying, “No, look, we don’t want to compromise. We don’t want to play with the governor on this.”

And as a result of that obstinance, we don’t have an expansion of the opportunity scholarship. So, to flesh that out a little bit, talk about where the movement is, the lessons that we can probably learn from that and where we should go from here, we’re very happy to have Valeria Gurr from the American Federation for Children.

She has been an absolute great activist when it comes to school choice throughout Nevada. She’s been here since, well, longer than I’ve been here fighting for this, so that’s fantastic. Valeria, thank you so much for joining us.

Valeria Gurr: Thank you for having me. I’m very happy to be here with you today.

Michael Schaus: So, a lot of folks following the legislative session just weren’t terribly happy with how things turned out and for good reason. I mean, the opportunity scholarships did not progress the way that most people wanted them to. We ended up at the end of the legislation legislative session with more money for public school, but virtually, scraps thrown at charter schools. Nothing thrown in the way of private school choice. A lot of people felt really disheartened and demoralized.

Where are we right now? Should we feel as demoralized as a lot of people say we should?

Valeria Gurr: Yeah, I can join that sentiment. I definitely felt the same way. I was really, really sad that the teacher’s union is so greedy that they take $2 billion, and teacher pay raises. They’re not willing to share raises with the charter schools at all, that are public schools.

Many of the legislators in Carson City send their kids to charter schools. And when you talk about charter schools, they specifically say charter schools are public schools. And they still fought against giving them equal raises and equal treatment as they claim these schools are doing a great job.

When it comes to opportunity scholarship, we knew it was going to be a tough fight. The governor put a good fight. He really, really tried and put this program in the minds of everyone. And I think essentially by doing that like there is also good in that and also the bad. The bad is that the Democrats decided that if this is what he wanted, they’re going to make it target number one. And that’s exactly what happened.

So, the Democrats said, “Oh, the governor wants opportunity scholarships. We’re not going to give them that because we don’t want to see him win and we don’t want to give him that win.” And instead of thinking about the kids, they just put politics in front of the kids. Because this program is serving low-income kids. The majority of them go to districts in this democrat in these Democrat districts. And they decided not to fund it.

To be, quite frankly, has never been so politicized. In previous years, the Democrats recognized the need to keep students in the program and to at least at minimum fund the records that they have funded before. So now the program went from $11.4 to $6.6 because funding has been in a stable and not been made permanent.

We have the concern; we don’t know what’s going to really happen. We don’t know if kids are going to lose the scholarships or if the funding that we have is going to be enough to cover for all of them. The granting organizations that allocate the funding have to go fundraise, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to be able to raise all the money that is allocated for the program.

And they also have to project for the years to come because they don’t want to give a scholarship for a kid for just one year, and then next year say, “I’m sorry, we don’t have enough funding.” That’s not fair to the kids. So, in many of these, in many of these cases, they are very responsible, and they allocate funding for at least three consecutive years.

But the Democrats said that this was a non-starter on day one. I honestly, I think I didn’t believe that they would actually do it. I actually thought at the end, they were going to be willing to compromise because they know that these are low-income kids, despite what the teachers’ union and SCA wants to say against the program. They were saying this is life for wealthy and vouchers and they call it something that is not, that we don’t even have,

Michael Schaus: That was such the frustrating portion of the entire legislative session to me. You’re looking at various forms of possible school choice programs. You know, you’ve got something like ESA’s, you’ve got something like traditional vouchers, and then you’ve got opportunity scholarships. And as you point out, these are scholarships that are funded by businesses donating to scholarship organizations. And we’re just talking about how many tax credits we want to give those businesses to incentivize that giving.

This is just about the least offensive form of school choice you can possibly imagine. And yet it was a non-starter for them. And that to me shows how partisan it became. “

Valeria Gurr: Yeah, next time we ask for universal ESA and we push for it. Because we were like the nicest people here, very reasonable people trying to reason with unreasonable people. And we’re definitely fed up. Next time we ask for more because they don’t want to give us anything, so we should not give them anything.

Michael Schaus: Yeah, that I think is, you know, one of the big takeaways for the movement in general.  It doesn’t really matter how much you want to compromise with some of the special interests that are opposed to school choice, you’re never going to get a compromise with them.

We were asking for $50 million. It was, what, less than one half of 1% of what the increase for public schools was going to be?

Valeria Gurr: Less. And they get $2 billion and $275 million for raises for teachers. We understand this is not a competition. It’s not one versus the other. And the reality is that 5,000 kids that do not participate in the traditional public schools, first of all, it’s not going to defund public schools. Secondly, it’s going to be a good thing. They don’t even have teachers to teach.

Michael Schaus: Yeah. What is the teacher vacancy rates in Clark County? It’s in the thousands right now. They can’t keep up with the student population that they currently have.

Valeria Gurr: Correct. The hypocrisy of the ones that said they care about kids is just to a whole other level. I used to want to think, and I started this as the governor did. You know, the governor said it’s time for us to put politics aside. And you know, like the Democrats just don’t want to talk about it. They just simply don’t want the closer. Like they say like, the teachers union don’t want this. They fund our campaigns and we’re just not willing to have any conversations.

And opportunity scholarships were something that they generally agreed to because they did not like universal ESA’s. What the Republicans did was say, “Okay, you don’t want to universal ESA’s so let’s have the conversation about opportunity scholarships.”

I think that, again, the learning as a movement is these people doesn’t want to even talk about anything, not even charter schools. And I can give you a list, Michael, of all the people that send their kids to charter schools.

Michael Schaus: Oh yeah. Well, I mean, a lot of them. I was on a PBS show recently and somebody that was talking went to a private school. She was talking about how great that was for her, but she didn’t want any “public money” for private schools.

And it’s frustrating because it has become so partisan. I think part of the lesson here, and this goes a little out of the 501c3 that, for example, Nevada Policy is in, but parents have to realize it’s up to us as a movement and as activists and as parents to become more powerful than the teacher’s union.

It’s time for us to make sure that our voice and our votes are heard louder than what we saw in this last legislative session, which was the NSEA could get up there and say, “Hey, look, no Democrats, you guys are not going to give an inch on this.” And they didn’t.

Valeria Gurr: Correct. And they have way too much power now.

Like they decided that any money that doesn’t go to them belongs to them. There was a Democrat, Claire Thomas, who said, “I this time of age, I support a school choice. It is the right thing to do.” And they were coming after her for that.

School choice was never a partisan issue in the past. It has become one because it is an issue that people support. And you were seeing Democrats yesterday saying how we have to not do more zip code education. They know it goes well. They just decide not to use it as a school choice. And they understand that this is an issue that people care about.

So now that elections come, they’re all going to be saying how the no more zip code education, we’re going to give you opportunities, blah, blah, blah, blah. The reality is we need more people like Claire Thomas. We need bipartisan support for a school choice.

And that’s going to take a lot of leadership because like the teachers’ union has way too much money in comparison with groups like ours. They try to say we’re the interest group. No, the teachers’ union, this is a union state. There’s bunch of different unions and they’re all against it because it’s less money for them.

And the reality is that it serves them to keep the kids and families as they are so they can continue making the case for themselves.

Michael Schaus: Looking forward right now, I mean, where we are as a movement, where we are just in the state, what are some things that we can be optimistic about? Because let’s face it politically, things are not going to change drastically in the next two years.

Governor Joe Lombardo has been vocal about his support for school choice. Are people looking at Joe Lombardo and saying, “Oh, he just, he wasn’t able to pull it off, he gave up. That’s too bad.” Or are there things actually happening that should give us a little bit of optimism?

Valeria Gurr: I think people needs to remember that the governor is a school choice supporter. He ran a school choice campaign. He promised the people that he was going to give them a school choice. The governor hasn’t given up. This is his first session. And we also have to remember that he’s a new governor, right? He was learning how this process also worked.

The governor is trying to look for other options to fund opportunity scholarship that are not necessarily the traditional way, which is very encouraging for the people that want to see different options. But he’s not going to give up. He’s going to continue fighting for this because this is something that he believes in deeply.

Just like all the advocates for school choice, he was deeply sad that we have to go all go through this. The only reason why charter schools got transportation funding was because of his leadership.

The other good thing that happened for the school church movement is that cities now are going to be able to allow charter schools in their districts. The process to approving a charter school was very, very bureaucratic. It would take years for charter schools to authorized. In the city of north Las Vegas, like half of the kids graduated from high school last year. If they want to be compete and be a thriving city, they have to be able to have better quality education for kids on the streets, or kids that are not performing, or kids that don’t think that they can do better.

So that was a huge win in my opinion. Maybe it went under the radar, but it’s a huge win because that’s going to essentially open a lot of more charter schools and competition in the areas that are needed.

Michael Schaus: Well, and I think that there’s still reason for optimism here for the movement because outside of the legislative process, we’re still seeing progress. Washoe County’s school district, for example, finally opened up to allowing people to move to schools that are not their zoned public school. So, you have a form of school choice within the public-school movement there.

You’ve got obviously micro schools and homeschooling and various learning pods and what have you. And you look at the enrollment numbers and it shows that parents are doing what they can to seek out options regardless of what happens on the legislative process.

And then nationally, this is a movement that is gaining throughout the country. Surely that’s going to help us here in Las Vegas and in Nevada in years coming. I mean that’s a cultural shift that I think Democrats, even though they’ve got the backing of the teachers union, they simply are not going to fight that culturally in the long term.

Valeria Gurr: They’re not going to be able to fight it back for too long. This is a civil right. Families deserve to have access to a quality education.

And I’ll tell you the states, now that you mention it: Iowa, Utah, Kansas, Florida, Tennessee, Nebraska, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Montana, Indiana, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin. Those are all the states, including Alabama, that passed a school choice this year.

To your point, one of the things that I am really happy the governor did is he put this issue at the forefront of the education agenda. And now every family knows that this is something that he’s fighting for. And they’re looking at him to see if he’s going to be able to do it. The governor knows that he has to do it because he promised this to the community.

So, I hope that people are angry. And I really, really hope that they’re as angry as I am so they finally stand up and fight back. Cause we really simply had enough.

Michael Schaus: Well, and I’ve been telling folks, both Democrats and Republicans, that I’ve been talking to that have been toying with the idea of potentially running, “If you are running against a Democrat who stood up against opportunity scholarships, even if you’re a fellow Democrat, make this an issue.”

You know, run on the school choice platform because to your point, there are a lot of parents who out there who are very upset. They’re very frustrated, and they want to hear somebody in addition to the governor saying, “Hey, look, we need this.” And I think that this could very easily be the number one issue going into an election season.

Because this is something that, to your point, for most of us who are not in politics, this isn’t a partisan issue. That to us, to parents, this isn’t about red or blue. This is about my kid getting a better education.

Valeria Gurr: Yeah. So, like, what do you do as a parent? Your kids are getting bullied, and the school doesn’t do anything.

That’s the case of many, many families that live in low-income areas. Essentially the school is just so overwhelmed because they have so many kids. If you walk in the shoes of that teacher, what do you do? Teachers only have two hands. They cannot do everything either. They’re not magical. They are pretty magical, but they cannot do all that.

If you put all that responsibility on teachers and they give you an overcrowded classroom, that family deserves to go to a school that can serve them better. If your kid is being bullied, a parent doesn’t want to see their kids going through that, and then you need an option if the school cannot handle it. You see that families sometimes complain, and they cannot do anything about it.

The situation just continues getting worse. So, I am happy that there was a safety act to like to try to bring more accountability into the schools and hopefully that will fix a lot of the bullying issues, but it’s not going to fix it all. And the reality is that families look for options, not just for academic outcomes, but also for safety concerns, simply because they like the values of the schools or they like the curriculum of the schools.

For me, for example, I am a first-generation American Hispanic. And I want my kid to be bilingual, and it’s very important to me because if I want my kid to sometimes visit and talk to grandma, he needs to speak two languages, and that doesn’t exist in this state. So, I have to pay for that.

And I, I’m glad that I can do that. It is a huge sacrifice for my family. And the reason why I decided not to have more children, because I am trying to provide that for my kid. But I see a lot of families in different circumstances just because you want that for your kid.

It’s a safety concern and it’s an emergency. The governor went to visit the school and the families were saying that their kids were being bullied by gangs and they had to leave. They have no other option, or their kids was going to be bullied to use drugs or sell drugs.

And that’s the reality of many, many families. And they do definitely don’t deserve that.

Michael Schaus: The restorative justice issue that you brought up, that was an interesting one for me because I saw Democrats get on board with pulling back some of the things that had happened under Governor Sisolak.

And I think that feeds into the point that culturally they’re not going to be able to stand in the way of what parents want. You know, parents were looking around. We had some very high-profile cases after COVID of bullying and violence and what have you. Parents were just asking, “Look, is my kid safe? I don’t feel like my kid is safe.”

And both Democrats and Republicans said something has to be done. And I think as long as parents continue to be vocal, continue to be activists and continue to be involved, they will eventually take a lot of that power away from the teachers’ union.

Valeria Gurr: Yeah. We spent a quarter of a million dollars to educate the Hispanic community because often they don’t know. And when you think about the teachers union, you think about teachers, and we support teachers.

The problem is that these institutions were not set up to either support them or support the education of kids. They’re there because they just want to be making political moves. And as you’re seeing, NSEA, for example, opened a PAC because they didn’t like the stadium. They basically said, after they got $2 billion, they decided to open a PAC. Regardless if you like the stadium or not, it just shows how greedy they are and how like out of touch and out of reality. All they should have said is, “Thank you. Thank you for historic investment in public education.” Instead, they came back and say, “We don’t care. We want more.”

Michael Schaus: And see, and that’s amazing to me. I’m not a fan. Anybody that has ever read any of my articles knows that I’m not a fan of the stadium.

That being said, you know, the NSEA deciding to do a PAC, to your point, shows just how greedy they are because they got $2 billion extra dollars and they’re looking at what’s going on with the stadium. They say, “Well, how come that money’s not ours?”

And that’s been the problem. That’s how they looked at opportunity scholarships. They weren’t afraid that opportunity scholarships were going to come out of their classrooms. They were just saying, “Why isn’t that money spent on us?” And it’s a weird mindset and I think it’s something that a lot of parents don’t think about necessarily.

Valeria Gurr: I think they believe everything belongs to them with zero accountability. You’ve seen that, if you’re looking at test scores and you want to measure apples to apples, if you look at the kids are not graduating.

So, the quality of education is absolutely horrific in this state, and they think, “No, we need more money.” If you decide to look at like charter schools and how well they’re doing, they give them almost nothing. They forgot about charter schools completely and yet they outperform the traditional public schools.

Essentially if you do terrible, you get $2 billion plus. No more excuses. And that’s one of the pieces that I like that the governor said. “You’ve been saying that you need more money for a very long time. Here is your money. We give you $2 billion, and we give you $275 million for teachers raises. Now that we give you this, are you still going to keep complaining that you need more?”

The answer is yes. You saw it yesterday.

Michael Schaus: And we’ve got now the election season and everything to figure it out. Okay, here’s the money. You guys got everything you want. You did not get any sort of school choice. What are you going to do with that? As the public school establishment, are you going to improve?

And if not, regardless of what happens politically and how many Democrats are in charge, parents are going to be looking at the next legislative session. If opportunity scholarships or some version of school choice is not seriously entertained, that’s got to be a wakeup call at that point. And folks should be upset, folks should be angry.

Valeria Gurr: Yeah. The Democrats think that they own the state, and they don’t have to compromise.

And the reality is that they have two majorities in the Assembly and the Senate. And they’re very close to super majorities that can undo everything that the governor did. And if we wouldn’t have them there, crazy policy would’ve passed this year. So, I’m grateful.

I repeat this. Sure, I was sad. The governor was sad. We were all sad, but it wasn’t his fault. I blame one hundred percent blame the union and the Democrats for being unwilling and unreasonable to even have a conversation about this. I hope that in the future we learn from this and that we work harder so that we have a school to support despite if they’re Republican or Democrats.

I really don’t care at this point. This is not for me a partisan issue. But I do care that we are able to have common sense and people that think like the community.

You have a lot of independents that couldn’t care less about this. This stuff is why they don’t vote. They are all fed up and they don’t trust the system. And the only way to get them engaged is that if we show them that as a government, we have the interest of the community.

Michael Schaus: We’ve been able to rant a lot now and this is very exciting because I’ve been able to get some of this off my chest. But what are some things that we ought to be really happy about looking at over the course of the last year?

And it doesn’t have to be here in Nevada. I mean, you mentioned all the states that are moving towards school choice and to me that’s such an overwhelmingly positive thing that I think sometimes we kind of lose sight because it’s not happening in Nevada. Some of those states are really surprising to me and I think it shows how it can transcend party lines.

And it shows that the culture again is changing. People are expecting something different from public education or from publicly funded education. So, what are the big things looking out over the course of the last year, let’s say, and looking specifically into the next year that make you feel really happy, despite what’s going on in Nevada?

Valeria Gurr: Yeah, I think that a lot like there, like as you mentioned, we mentioned several states that have passed school choice. Families can leave. Now they can go to another state and if they choose to, and you’re going to see that. So, like at least you’re going to see people moving to Arizona.

Arizona has universal ESA’s. I believe that’s going to create competition among the states because the reality is if your kid is under a lot of stress, a parent will have to make a decision. And if this is not the state, then you cannot afford it. People are going to take jobs somewhere else. That’s one.

The other piece is that there’s a lot of momentum and the governor’s going to continue fighting. Not just the governor, but all the leadership that actually supports school choice. And there’s a lot of us on the ground. And I think that sometimes that when you have this like really waking up time, it makes you think you know differently about things.

So, I think a lot of people are going to be fighting even harder than before because we just have learned that there is no reason. People just simply have put politics in front of the kids, and they don’t think about keeping our kids first.

So, like, you have my work. We’re not going anywhere. We’re going to continue this fight. Not because it’s going to be easy, but simply because it’s the right thing to do.

Michael Schaus: Do you think that there’s any chance? I’ve had a lot of people ask me this and I just don’t know because I’m not plugged in enough to the political side of the movement. Do you think that there’s any possibility that somebody might eventually bring this up as like a ballot initiative or something like that? I imagine that takes a ton of money.

Valeria Gurr: Yeah, we’ve seen it in other states. I’m not necessarily a huge fan of that. We’ve seen it and it hasn’t worked, and you need millions of dollars. We have seen in many different states they have tried, and the reality is that you come with $8 million, and the teachers union can come with $20 million.

So, unless there’s a well-developed plan, it’s only going to harm a school choice more in the state. So, I am not necessarily sure there has been an appetite. Power2parent tried to do it, but they were ineffective. A lot of people always want to talk about this. I think it’s just harder to do it.

Michael Schaus: Well, to your point, it comes down to money when you’ve got a very deep pocket in the teacher’s union. We just don’t have that kind of money because we don’t have that kind of centralized force in the movement where we’ve got millions and millions and millions of dollars to throw at something.

Valeria Gurr: Yeah. And the reality is the other unions can come and fight it and even throw money into these petitions. Just as was mentioned yesterday, the NSEA is not doing this alone. They have allies that are going to be financially supporting them, too.

Michael Schaus: Yeah, exactly. We really are going to against the behemoth and I think it’s one of the reasons why it is such a motivating factor for parents because they look at it and they realize more now than they did 10 years ago that this is a really big apparatus trying to preserve the public education status quo business, and it has nothing to do with kids.

Valeria Gurr: The reality is if it did, everybody would be thinking about what their practices are and how we collaborate. Like private schools always said, we’re not trying to take money away from the public school system. We’re trying to be partners. We actually fundraise for the kids, and we actually help them.

And there is this image of private school just being elite private schools. There are so many different schools that go into low-income communities just because they want to help. I can give you plenty of examples of those. Sure, you’re going to find schools that are really, really expensive. But also, you’re going to find, you know, schools that are made for families that actually are just simply looking for a cheaper private school option. Just because there are schools in their area are so bad.

Michael Schaus: Yeah, exactly. And there’s that collaborative mentality among private schools and charter schools as well that just doesn’t exist with the teachers’ union. The teachers’ union doesn’t want to play with anybody.

If people want to find out more about what you guys are doing with the American Federation for Children and what you’re up to between now and the next legislative session, where can they go?

Valeria Gurr: We have a chapter here, which is in Nevadaschoolchoicecoalition.com. You can read there a little bit more.

Also, you can visit our website, the American Federation for Children. And we also have our efforts now in Spanish as well. We’re really trying to reach out to all communities that, you know, polling shows supports school choice.

Michael Schaus: Yeah, excellent. The biggest thing is the educational piece of it. Making sure that all those communities know that this effort does exist out there and they’re not doing it alone as a single parent or something. Valeria, thank you so much. We really appreciate you taking the time.

Valeria Gurr: Thank you for having me.

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 Free to Offend:
A podcast that radically defends free speech by regularly practicing it.

Produced by Nevada Policy Research Institute,
featuring Nevada Policy’s Michael Schaus.