Lombardo’s Push to Save Students Scuttled by Partisan Politics

Marcos Lopez

While Nevada is starting to come off its July highs, the heated battle over school choice shows no signs of cooling off.

This past Wednesday, Democratic-led Interim Finance Committee rejected a bold move by Gov. Joe Lombardo to fully fund Nevada’s Educational Choice Scholarship Program, better known as Opportunity Scholarships.

This rejection has placed hundreds of students on trajectory to lose their scholarships as the school year begins and likely condemns them to Nevada’s failing government schools.

In a party-line vote, Democrats shot down the proposal, declaring the situation a “manufactured crisis” and denouncing the “greed” of Nevada’s leading scholarship-granting organization, or SGO, the AAA Scholarship Foundation, while ignoring the insatiable teachers unions for whom no money is ever enough.

Work Item F proposed using $3,235,000 of unallocated federal COVID-19 funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to cover the need-based scholarships for students at risk of losing their opportunity scholarship.

While it can be construed to be a Hail Mary, credit should be given to Lombardo for forcing a hearing on this pressing issue, getting the program’s Democratic detractors on the record and showing the public how far the majority party is willing to go to maintain the educational cartel that is failing our communities.

The whole meeting took 12 hours to adjourn, with debate surrounding the main event – Opportunity Scholarships – being moved to the end.

Public comment lasted two hours and overwhelming support piled in from all over the state as a line of parents, students and educators shared testimony illustrating the hope and success this program has provided for families lucky enough to secure these scholarships.

Opposition was sparsely scattered in between, focused on distorting opportunity scholarships as vouchers and attempting to shift the conversation to unrelated matters like rent control and allegations that government schools owe their failures to underfunding.

Prior to the hearing, objections came up arguing the move would be a misuse of COVID funds, but history shows this proposal follows precedent. Numerous states have employed federal COVID relief funds to either supplement, broaden, or establish various school choice initiatives.

Nevada itself ventured into this territory indirectly. Specifically, the state designated Federal COVID-19 funds to initiate the Transforming Opportunities for Toddlers and Students grant Program. This initiative offered grants of up to $5,000 to families with children with disabilities for various purposes including educational expenses such as tuition and tutoring.

Furthermore, if this program is closely examined, it becomes evident that this proposal inherently advances the very objectives and guidelines set forth by the U.S. Department of the Treasury in January 2022 concerning the expenditure of discretionary American Rescue Plan Act funds. These guidelines include, but are not limited to:

  • Aiding Disproportionately Impacted Communities: The Opportunity Scholarship program directly targets students from low- or moderate-income households, which aligns with the criteria set by Treasury for populations presumed eligible to receive American Rescue Plan Act funds as Impacted and Disproportionately Impacted Households and Communities.
  • Promoting Equitable Outcomes: By empowering families to choose private educational options, Opportunity Scholarships contribute to promoting equitable outcomes in education, providing children from underserved backgrounds with the same opportunities for quality education as their affluent peers.
  • Promoting Equitable Outcomes: By empowering families to choose private educational options, Opportunity Scholarships contribute to promoting equitable outcomes in education, providing children from underserved backgrounds with the same opportunities for quality education as their affluent peers.
  • Addressing Educational Disparities Exacerbated by COVID-19: There is little doubt the pandemic exacerbated educational disparities in Nevada. The Opportunity Scholarship program could’ve mitigated these disparities by offering a lifeline to students, particularly those from marginalized communities, enabling them to access a better education.

During the hearing, Democrats hammered Lombardo’s Chief of Staff Ben Kieckhefer and Director of the Governor’s Finance Office Amy Stephenson, with a barrage of questions. They sought to divert the blame, attempting to discard it from their refusal to entertain any increased funding for the program during the legislative session.

Instead, they sought to blame the AAA Scholarship Foundation and the Governor’s administration because AAA received all the credits this year, leaving none for the other SGOs.

This attempts to obfuscate their role in the predicament by omitting that, statutorily, the credits used to fund the scholarships are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. To deny AAA would not only be illegal but also punish AAA for their success.

Nevada is not here because of Lombardo or the AAA Scholarship Foundation. When families lose access to the schools that are working for them and are forced back into failing schools, it will be because the Democratic-controlled legislature continues to place politics over policy and special interests over students.

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Marcos Lopez

Marcos Lopez

Policy Fellow

Marcos Lopez serves as a Policy Fellow for Nevada Policy. For over a decade, Marcos has fought to advance free-market principles, limited government, and secure individual rights through electioneering, lobbying, and grassroots mobilization at all levels of government across nine states and Washington D.C.

Originally from Miami, Marcos moved to Nevada in 2015 and has lived in Reno and Las Vegas, where he currently resides. His main areas of focus include economic opportunity, criminal justice reform, and school choice. Marcos’ work and efforts have been recognized and featured in The New York Times, The Las Vegas Review Journal, The Nevada Independent, This is Reno, and The Nevada Current.