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July 19, 2024 4:10 pm

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Senate Bill to Spend More Public Money on Private Schools May Not Get a Hearing

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by Dana Gentry, Nevada Current

Democratic State Sen. Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro is declining to say whether she’ll allow legislative hearings on a bill introduced in the Senate last week to implement Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo’s plan to augment public funding to help families pay private school tuition. 

Last week, Cannizzaro condemned an anti-LGTBQ+ message delivered to fellow Democratic state Sen. Dallas Harris, an openly gay lawmaker, during a February event in Carson City promoting the diversion of public money to private schools.  

“As a policy matter, it is incumbent upon the Legislature to ensure that taxpayers are not subsidizing discriminatory curricula and that students are safe in schools regardless of their race, ethnicity, sexuality, or gender,” Cannizzaro tweeted last week. “Advocates for expanding voucher programs should expect to answer tough questions in the months to come.”

A spokesperson for the Senate Democrats reiterated Monday the caucus does not support  the governor’s proposed appropriation, but declined to say whether Cannizzaro intends for those “tough questions” to be asked during legislative hearings. 

“It hasn’t been determined at this point if any additional hearings beyond the budget process will be necessary,” Mindy Pressman, spokeswoman for the Senate Democrats, said Monday. 

Lombardo committed during his State of the State address to designate $50 million to the Nevada Educational Choice Scholarship Program, which currently provides about $6.6 million a year in modified business tax credits to K-12 students for private school tuition. 

“I fully expect opportunity scholarships to receive a record amount of funding this session,” Lombardo said in that address..   

Students whose families earn no more than 300% of the federal poverty level are eligible for grants under the program, which was championed in 2015 by Gov. Brian Sandoval, also a Republican. SB 220 would increase the eligibility threshold to 400% of the poverty level. 

A Nevada Independent story last week about the message sent to Harris features a photo of a heart-shaped paper that says “Thank you for my school choice.” The paper heart says “Dunamis School,” ‘No more CRT and LGBTQ+ in our schools!” and is signed by Andrew Walker. 

Walker is the pastor of Dunamis Church, according to its website. In a Facebook video posted last year, Walker asserted the church was opening a “micro school” in September 2022. In other videos, Walker derides homosexuality as “demonic” behavior.

The term “micro school” can refer to groups of parents who homeschool their children, often with the help of a paid facilitator. Some micro schools are held in private facilities, libraries and churches. 

The state says Dunamis School is not licensd and has never applied for a license.

School is a broad term used by many entities. Not all are licensed or K-12 educational institutions,” said Department of Education spokeswoman Elizabeth Callahan.

Walker, reached by phone Monday, refused to comment. 

In January, Cannizzaro said Lombardo’s proposal was a non-starter for her caucus. Republican Senate Leader Heidi Gansert, one of 10 Republican sponsors of legislation to further Lombardo’s effort, did not respond to requests for comment on providing public money to schools exempt from state standards.

Gansert and other state senate Republicans issued a statement last week condemning the “discriminatory message” Walker sent to Harris. In that statement, Gansert said she did not “believe this matter reflects the values of all students and families who support” spending public money on private schools.    

“Public money should not be used to fund private schools, period,” says Athar Haseebullah, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada. “The constant perpetuation by private school advocates that their schools should be entitled to public dollars when there are loose standards in place isn’t appropriate stewardship of public money. Their argument undermines not only our traditional public schools, but public charter schools as well.”

Lombardo did not respond to requests for comment. 

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2020 in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue that states providing educational subsidies for parents of private school students “cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”

“The endless nature of ‘opting’ out of public systems for ‘choice’ could conceivably have no end in sight, allowing any level of public funds to be used for any private system, raising serious issues involving the separation of church and state and beyond,” Haseebullah says. 

This story was written by Dana Gentry, a reporter at the Nevada Current, where this story first appeared.

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