An angel for homeless veterans

No one will confuse the jolly green Veterans Village 2 apartments at 50 N. 21st Street with a boutique hotel, but a fresh coat of paint does wonders on the deep end of downtown.

It’s safe to say the amenities planned for the complex, the working dream of longtime Southern Nevada affordable housing advocate Arnold Stalk, wouldn’t be found in the concierge directory of a Strip resort. But a regular visit from the 3 Square Food Bank truck and ready access to medical and mental health services can go a long way to accomplishing a goal that Stalk has chased like a sinking star for three decades: To provide a clean, safe, sober place to live for the valley’s homeless veterans population.

It appears to be working.

Talk to Stalk for a few minutes and you’ll surmise he’s the only person involved in the project who didn’t doubt its success for a moment. For him, giving up simply isn’t a question, and he’s in the process of expanding his nonprofit affordable housing program to 1,000 units.

“When I started this,” Stalk recalled, “I was told you can’t do that. It’s too hard. It’s too difficult and it’s certainly too costly. There’s no funding, and you’ll never get anybody to work with you. My business model as a nonprofit housing provider proves that turning that organizational chart completely upside down works. We start with the staff. We go from the staff up to funders and corporate partners.”

It’s not like Stalk works on Easy Street. There are no angels visible here. The first Veterans Village stands in a converted Econo Lodge at 1150 Las Vegas Boulevard South just off US 95. The second building is also downtown, where there’s no shortage of dilapidated structures — or homeless veterans.

And its $8 million financing package? It’s a piecemeal effort that incorporated city gifts redevelopment funds, a $5.6 million loan from Clearinghouse CDFI, a nonprofit that funds environmentally sustainable companies that qualify.

And there’s the last piece: a $1 million gift from former NFL running back and Las Vegan Steven Jackson.

“He’s a great guy who did it for all the right reasons,” Stalk said. “He saved us.”

The studios were gutted and refurbished. The nonprofit’s website (veteransvillagelasvegas.org) chronicles its needs, and donations are welcome. A long list of local companies have risen to the occasion. Among many: Wynn Resorts, NV Energy, Brady Industries, and general contractor R.L. Reed.

There’s a food bank being stocked, and a crisis intervention center on the way. Help with medical and mental health treatment is also part of the larger plan.

If you think this patchwork platoon couldn’t possibly march, guess again. It already is.

“The single most cause of chronic poverty and homelessness in the United States is the lack of special needs housing with intensive supportive services,” Stalk said. “This is a very aggressive and comprehensive plan that we are embarking on, and I am confident that we can reach this goal of 1,000 units with the help of my public and private sector partners, collaborations and support from our friends in the Las Vegas valley.”

***

At first glance, the local numbers of homeless veterans don’t seem overly shocking. Statistics released by the Department of Housing and Urban Development last year recorded 730 homeless veterans in Southern Nevada. That’s up 5.5 percent from 2015. (The statewide figure was slightly down.)

But homeless counts paint an incomplete picture. While HUD estimates approximately 39,500 veterans are on the street nationally, a staggering 1.4 million former members of the American military exist on the society’s margins at risk of homelessness at any time. That’s a stain on our flag.

The issue transcends finding housing, of course. Most veterans on the street, or near it, suffer from one or more medical, emotional, or mental  maladies, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. From alcoholism and drug abuse to mental illness, our warriors carry wounds that aren’t always visible.

Stalk, soft-spoken yet tenacious, has spent much of his life working to make a difference for people who may not know his name, but survive in no small part because of his dedication.

On Friday morning, there was more good news at Veterans Village 2. A crate of toilets for the complex. He smiles, talks about the many donations he’s received, and the angels that have descended on the complex. He believes in those angels.

I suspect the belief is mutual.

“I am not waiting any longer to see people suffer living in the streets tunnels, hillsides, in cars and in overcrowded housing conditions,” Stalk said.

On the deep end of downtown, the angels are where you find them.

Arnold Stalk sees them every day.

John L. Smith is a longtime Las Vegas journalist and author. Contact him at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com, or on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.

Disclosure: NV Energy and Wynn have donated to The Nevada Independent. You can see a full list of donors here.

 

Promises, promises on ESAs

The Clark County School District administrative offices on Monday, Jan 16, 2017.

Commitments matter. Or they should.

So when all members of the state Senate’s Republican caucus tell Nevada Independent reporters they will vote against a budget without Education Savings Accounts, we should take them at their word, right?

“No ESA funding, no budget,” Senate GOP Leader Michael Roberson declared last week, and his caucus members fell in line. So none will vote for a budget without money for a school choice program. As Sean Spicer would put it: Period!

Similarly, when Democratic Senate Leader Aaron Ford responded to Brian Sandoval’s State of the State speech in which the governor made ESAs a priority, he, too, was unequivocal. Ford called the $5,000 public money grants to parents the “wrong priority for Nevada’s kids” and “not fair to Nevada families.”

So all Democrats presumably will refuse to include ESA money in the budget they will send to the governor in late spring. Period!

That was easy. Now I don’t have to spend four months in Carson City because the session is over before it starts. The Republicans won’t vote for a budget without ESAs, the Democrats won’t pass a budget with ESAs, and the governor will veto any budget without ESAs.

I’ll see everybody in July in the capital, when some southern lawmakers start to long for their families and lost income. That is, if everyone can be taken at his or her word.

And therein lies the reason for hope or despair, depending on your perspective: Politicians often speak in absolutes, making promises they don’t intend to — or don’t know how — to keep.

The most obvious one, and biennially relevant to the Legislature are those three meaningless words: no new taxes. Those words, or variants, have been uttered many times by pandering pols, only to be broken.

(Brief digression: After the tortuous 2015 session, when many bent or broke their words to pass a $1.5 billion tax increase, everyone assumed 2017 would be a no-tax session. But Sandoval has proposed one of the largest taxes, by percentage, in the state’s history: a 10 percent tax on marijuana sales.)

The posturing on ESAs before the gavel even comes down for Session ’17 reminds me of the no-tax pledges and how little words matter in politics. And it comes surrounding an issue that has become hopelessly partisan – no Democrats voted in 2015 for the ESA law that subsequently was gutted by the state Supreme Court.

Neither party deserves a pass here, either, for its rhetoric since.

Republicans now portraying ESAs as some kind of miracle cure for the state’s perpetually underfunded education system are from the same party that reflexively opposed putting more money into schools for decades. And Democrats wailing about “vouchers” and the end of the public school world are from the same party that had chances to really fix education during the last quarter-century and generally opted for half-measures or none.

Sandoval is the hybrid here, no matter his party affiliation. He is a Republican who believes fervently in school choice after watching Jeb Bush’s success in Florida. But he has the Democratic gene that tells him money can be meaningful in education, if it is apportioned with accountability.

As the governor who can veto any budget without ESAs in a state where the executive branch is almost omnipotent (four months out of 24, lawmakers meet!), Sandoval is the key to resolving the ESA debate. And whether it’s in June or July or August, he will.

“I look forward to building a bipartisan solution to get this done,” Sandoval said in his State of the State speech, encapsulating both his governing ethos and political realities.

I dream of a spirited policy debate over this critical issue, where Democrats have to justify why they are so opposed to helping parents who just want the best education for their kids and Republicans have to show why this policy isn’t a precursor to a dismantling of a public education system they are sworn to keep vibrant. But I am a realist.

The politics here are fascinating, though. Roberson has smartly set the tone for the session by locking his caucus down before the session even begins on the fulcrum for the 120 days. Everything now pivots off this histrionic absolutism.

Can he hold his caucus? He’s a lame duck with higher ambitions, I think, but he showed in 2015 that when he says he is going to do something, he does it.

The bigger question is about Ford, who also is looking higher but who needs to show — now that his first name is Majority and not Minority — that he can lead. It’s not just about whether he can hold his caucus, along with newly minted indie Patty Farley, but he needs also to answer the question (just not aloud quite yet): WDTDW? What do the Democrats want?

If he really wants to leave a mark, Ford cannot just end with a list of items that Sandoval would have signed anyhow in exchange for funding ESAs. He needs to be able to show real negotiating skills and true endurance.

The latter quality will answer whether he can hold his caucus, most of which is from the South and will get quite homesick if the session becomes, ahem, a little too special. Whether it’s education funding or social justice or energy policy, Ford must show that he can go toe-to-toe with Roberson and Sandoval.

The Assembly dynamic, of course, is not irrelevant. And the ability of two well-regarded leaders, Speaker Jason Frierson and Minority Leader Paul Anderson, to work together will also be tested, although the Ford-Roberson dynamic seems more potentially incendiary.

Ford already signaled last week to The Nevada Independent that he knows what’s coming: “I believe that Senate and Assembly Democrats and the governor will be able to work through any differences to craft a budget that equitably funds our public schools and provides more choices and accountability to parents.”

Democrats will use the word “choice” a lot because it is powerful and to blunt the GOP rhetoric. There already is plenty of choice in Nevada – charters, home schools – they will say. Fine.

Despite all the saber-rattling, ESAs are coming. Probably not at the $60 million the governor budgeted, but they will be law, either in June or sometime this summer.

The only question remaining is what the Democrats can get in exchange. And that will take commitment.

Jon Ralston is the editor of the The Nevada Independent. He has been a journalist in Nevada for more than 30 years. Contact him at ralston@thenvindy.com

Las Vegas Sands again tests regulatory resolve of Gaming Control Board

Las Vegas Sands Chairman Sheldon Adelson won big in betting on self-styled deal king Donald Trump’s underdog presidential campaign. Adelson’s casino company is no slouch itself when it comes to cutting a deal.

Sands once again cut a multimillion-dollar check, this time a $6.96 million criminal penalty, to end a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into whether it violated federal anti-bribery law (The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act) when it made payments to a consultant as it pursued business opportunities in China’s legalized gambling oasis.

Sands entered into a “non-prosecution agreement” in which it admitted that corporate executives from 2006 to 2009 failed to employ accounting procedures that might have ensured some of its payments were on the square. Sands paid $60 million to a politically-connected consultant to promote its business ventures. After greasing the wheels, the consultant’s end was $5.8 million — nice work if you can get it.

For those keeping score, last year Sands paid $9 million to settle an investigation based on similar facts brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Among the intriguing and hard-to-explain issues was Sands use of the consultant to help hide the company’s interest in buying a franchise in the Chinese Basketball Association. The league doesn’t allow casino company ownership.

The story broke just before Trump’s inauguration, and so far much of the press hasn’t associated the news of the multimillion-dollar settlement with the president’s biggest donor.

For its part, the casino giant managed to make the protracted and sordid scandal seem downright sunny: “The company is pleased that its cooperation and long-term commitment to compliance were recognized in reaching this resolution,” the Sands’ Ron Reese announced in an email reported by Reuters. “We are equally pleased that all inquiries related to these issues have now been completely resolved.”

Why it almost sounds like the best of all possible worlds for Adelson’s outfit. The boss, by the way, wasn’t charged with a crime.

Nothing new there. The company has bought its way out of a lot of legal trouble in recent years. Its fortunes rocketed on the strength of its Macau casino development, but it also courted controversy with its political relationships and super-aggressive business style.

Another man might have hidden his face in embarrassment for yet again seeing his company mired in a federal investigation, but Adelson was on the inaugural platform and received prime face time prior to Trump’s swearing-in ceremony. His presence in the company of wife Dr. Miriam Adelson and longtime political ally Newt Gingrich was duly noted by CNN and NBC. Adelson also enjoyed an honored place at the inaugural luncheon.

And why not?

His support, financial and otherwise, was integral to Trump’s rise to power, though Adelson was more measured with his checkbook and his rhetoric in 2016 than in past elections — undeniably wise given Trump’s unpredictability and polarizing style. Trump seemed one Tweet from self-destruction throughout much of the campaign.

Adelson’s company pays multi-million dollar fines to settle federal criminal and civil foreign probes, and the CEO jets off to Washington to socialize with Trump’s winning team. Call it the curmudgeonly view of a former Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist once sued into bankruptcy by the multi-billionaire, but shouldn’t this put the state Gaming Control Board on the spot to at least publicly discuss the possibility of a management change inside the company?

Sands agreed in May to pay $2 million without admitting or denying guilt to settle a control board complaint alleging its accounting failures in China and anti-money-laundering lapses in Las Vegas amounted to operating casinos in an “unsuitable manner.” It was a wrist slap.

At least in theory, a Nevada gaming license is a privilege. Regulators have a responsibility to hold a hearing when a company is fined $16 million by the federal government over the course of a year.

National gaming skeptics, who have watched with arched brow as Nevada casino operators have landed in big trouble in other jurisdictions, have thought that for years. Perhaps they’re right and tough casino regulation has become a thing of the past.

Or maybe Nevada’s casino watchdogs just don’t want to interrupt the party on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Note: This column was updated Monday, Jan. 23, to include the fact that the state fined the Sands $2 million after the SEC probe, which The Nevada Independent reported in its news story.

Disclosure:  Smith was once sued by Adelson for libel. The suit was later dismissed with prejudice. Smith left the Adelson-owned Las Vegas Review-Journal last year after he was told he could not write about Adelson or Steve Wynn.

John L. Smith is a longtime Las Vegas journalist and author. Contact him at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jlnevadasmith

 

Misplaced focus and bureaucratic inertia – Are schools really a priority in Reno?

On January 11, my wife and I attended a Reno City Council meeting in order to provide public comment in support of Doral Academy, a proposed K-8 charter school in our neighborhood. The funding was in place, the engineering was done, and the need for more public elementary and middle schools in our area is beyond dispute. All that was needed was site plan approval from the City Council, and we’d have an arts- and STEM-focused public school my kids could walk to just blocks from my own home.

The site plan had been previously denied by city planning staff because of traffic concerns. (A few neighbors aren’t keen on the idea that our growing neighborhood will have even more people using it, and objected.) Pursuant to procedure, the matter was on appeal to the council itself. In the meantime, the engineers designed fixes to the expected increase in traffic, which they had been told would alleviate the City’s worries. They confidently told me before the meeting that city codes had been met without variance, and that the traffic circle they’d designed with the help of City staff had earned the highest possible service efficiency rating traffic experts use. They clearly expected approval.

In spite of the Senior City Planner testifying on the record that the proposed traffic fixes met their standards, the planning staff still – to the obvious surprise and frustration of the Doral folks – recommended against approval. Why? They didn’t feel there were enough bicycle lanes, in spite of there being no legal requirement for such lanes (nor do they exist at any other comparable school in town, save one). As for vehicle flow, it was agreed the traffic circle was great when school was in session, but since it wasn’t needed during non-student pickup hours and would cause a minor inconvenience at those times, well, it was better just to not have a school at all.

Mind you, the school in which my kids — and other kids in our immediate neighborhood — are currently enrolled is too far away to walk or bike to, and the sole access road they’d have to cross if they did is mainly used by large trucks driving in and out of a rock quarry. The school is also nearing 150 percent of its designed student capacity, and growing.

 

There is no such thing as a neighborhood school with zero impact on the neighbors, but under-educated kids in over-crowded schools doesn’t exactly raise property values either. Even with new education taxes approved last year, Washoe County can’t build regular schools fast enough to meet demand.

Every single person on that council campaigned as a problem-solver. But only Mayor Hillary Schieve and Councilwoman Neoma Jardon seemed willing to actually drive planners toward a solution. Councilwoman Jenny Brekhus, announcing that her mission was “preservation of neighborhoods” (we live in a barely decade-old tract development, not a gentrified historic district) and obviously proud to have found an answer to a question no one was asking, fretted that the Reno Police Department couldn’t handle the volume of calls second-graders apparently generate.  

 

Councilman Paul McKenzie, whose grandkids go to private schools, complained there wasn’t enough parking. When reminded the site was actually at their legal upper limit for regular parking spaces, but had hundreds more hidden underneath playground space for special events, he complained (without evidence) that all those extra parked cars would constitute some sort of hazard.

Councilman David Bobzien worried that more “odious” businesses may move in if they aren’t picky about traffic now (residential zoning allows schools, but not Madam Tabitha’s Toys & Water Pipes). Councilwoman Naomi Duerr, the only member to respond when I reached out for comment, used a lot of words to say nothing of substance at all, but at the meeting announced she “just couldn’t get there” based on what had been presented by the bureaucrats.  

 

Councilman Oscar Delgado spoke airily of the importance of bicycle lanes, like in Chicago and Detroit.

All of them claimed to want the school in Reno, and I don’t even doubt they meant it.  Policymakers can never perfectly balance their many competing public interests. But when those policymakers focus inordinately on the Perfect to the detriment of the Good, it starts looking like an excuse not to build a school. One may even suspect that education in my community is something politicians prioritize on campaign mailers more than in actual practice.

I don’t know if this is just the inertia government bureaucracies always tend to engender, a leftover habit of historic neglect for Nevada schools, or quiet philosophical opposition to any sort of school choice. Either way, real families will continue to suffer from inadequate facilities and unwieldy multi-track schedules.

Worse, this is exactly the sort of thing that erodes faith in government institutions as a whole. If the council — already battered from public reports of dysfunction from independent investigators — can’t approve a ready-made, code-compliant elementary school in suburbia, what can they get done? If other Reno businesses learn that “following the law” isn’t enough when getting permits to build, and that they could lose thousands of dollars spent planning and re-planning projects according to the whims of politicians, why would they risk investing in Reno at all?

Fortunately, only Jenny Brekhus wanted to kill the school outright with a final denial. The rest of the council agreed to continue the hearing to January 25th for further consideration, where a final decision will be made. I hope that when they meet again, the kids in my neighborhood and beyond wind up with education solutions rather than “rescue” from inadequate bike lanes to a school that doesn’t exist.

Orrin was a political columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal in 2015 and 2016. He has appeared as a guest commentator on Nevada radio and television programs including Nevada Newsmakers and The Travis Christiansen Show. He began blogging in 2005 for his law school’s Federalist Society chapter and in 2007 started his own blog, First Principles.

A conversation with a Cheshire cat

I look at Michael Roberson these days and I wonder:  Why is this man smiling?

Consider the year state Sen. Roberson just endured. He lost a primary for Congress to Danny Tarkanian, a perennial candidate who has never won a race. Then, he lost his majority leader’s job when the Democrats swept offices up and down the ticket.

You’d have to cut him some slack if he was in a sour mood, depressed about returning to Carson City as a two-time loser. But unless he has more range than Olivier, Roberson’s demeanor during a recent interview indicated this prickly partisan is returning as a happy warrior.

Roberson, bearded and relaxed in his law office, said he never considered resigning after his annus horribilis.

“No, I was elected for a four-year term and I came in with this governor and I’m going to continue to see through the work we’ve done the last six years,” said Roberson, who tried to leave that term early to move to DC. “I mean, listen, politics is a tough business.  You win some, you lose some.”

Roberson lost very few battles in the capital two years ago, effectively pushing Gov. Brian Sandoval’s agenda that included school reforms, tort revisions, pension reform, prevailing wage revisions and, of course, the $1.5 billion tax increase. Roberson thrived as majority leader, the bad cop to Sandoval’s good, never seeming to care that someone might be offended by his ruthless efficiency.

And even if the tax increase cost him with the far right, which has an impact in primaries, he comes into 2017 not the least bit regretful:

“Would I have rather done what I thought was the wrong thing or failed to do what I thought was the right thing in exchange for winning a primary?  No.”

Roberson added that he has a substantial agenda and little patience (this will not be news).

“Education is a big one, bringing businesses to the state is a big one, economic development, so I don’t have time,” he said. “I’m not going to wallow in some sort of self-examination of what some people may think about me based on one vote (for the tax increase).”

Roberson clearly reveled in his 2015 role, but I think he may be a more natural minority leader, eager to set traps for Majority Leader Aaron Ford and frustrate the Democrats. That task was made more difficult by Sen. Patty Farley’s defection – she is now a nonpartisan but will caucus with the Democrats, who now have a 12-9 edge. She left in no small part because of what she saw as Roberson’s shabby treatment of her, but he considered her a disruptive influence on the GOP caucus.

Roberson, though, dismisses any notion that he is worried about the Democrats blocking school choice or rolling back the 2015 laws, especially because of the backstop across the courtyard.

“I’m not concerned,” he said. “They won’t be successful.”

So what will be the points of contention with Democrats, besides ESAs, which could be the fulcrum for the entire session?

“Well, I don’t know because I don’t know what their agenda is going to be,” Roberson retorted, wryly adding, “I don’t know if they know what their agenda is going to be.  I don’t know what they’re going to do this session.  I know that I am focused on making sure that we see through all of these reforms that we passed last session, education, collective bargaining, PERS, construction defect, tort. We’re not having a rollback of 2015.”

Ford gave a glimpse of what his caucus’ agenda will be when he delivered the response to the governor’s State of the State, echoes of the so-called Nevada Blueprint.

Roberson suggested he and Ford have a good relationship, but I did not have him hooked up to a polygraph at the time.

“I look forward to working with him this session,” Roberson said, and for some reason I was reminded of the Cheshire cat. “Having said that, I do not expect his agenda to be my agenda, and when I disagree with his agenda I will not be shy about it. I think it’s important for people to remember we have divided government. This is not 2015, where you had one party in control of the executive and both houses of the Legislature.”

Roberson said he and Ford had dinner a couple of days after the election, and that he gave the man taking his job some advice. What advice? He wouldn’t say, but added, with a straight face, that the two men trust each other.

Anyhow, Roberson said, it doesn’t really matter.

“He’s controlling the Senate floor now,” he said of Ford. “He’s the majority leader.  He shouldn’t worry about me.”

Uh huh.

Roberson seems willing to be the governor’s man in the Legislative Building again, but he also declared, a few days before Sandoval’s speech when I asked him about new money:  “We’re not raising taxes this session. On anybody.”

(Maybe the governor should have told his ally about that 10 percent excise tax on pot….)

Roberson seems so addicted to the game, and often so good at it, that I can’t believe he will disappear when his term ends in two years. I am not sure he would run for re-election as opposed to looking at Congress again or something statewide. But he will look.

“I’m focused on the session, and I’ll look at opportunities once the session is over with,” he said, opening and closing the door to nothing.

Although Roberson said he is the “same person I was when I was first elected November 2010,” he also claimed, “Losing a race humbles you.”

Well, let’s not get carried away.

This political leopard shows his spots have not totally faded, that he cannot resist showing his true Roberson, especially on social media and especially about ESAs.

When Sylvia Lazos, a law professor who opposes ESAs, tweeted about her position, Roberson let her have it.

When Treasurer Dan Schwartz, whom Roberson called on the carpet in 2015 for his alternative budget, said the governor did not include enough money for ESAs in his budget, Roberson unleashed on him.

And after Clark County officials put out the word that they wanted to lift the property tax cap that had been imposed during the recession, Roberson once again took to Twitter.

I bet I know what Roberson was doing as he sent the tweets, too: He was smiling.

Jon Ralston is the editor of the The Nevada Independent. He has been a journalist in Nevada for more than 30 years. Contact him at ralston@thenvindy.com

 

NO on ESAs: Private schools lack transparency and accountability

by Margaret Wagner

Implementing vouchers (ESAs) in the state of Nevada is a troubling concept for many reasons. As an 18-year veteran teacher in the Clark County School District, I have spent my career working within the education system and have had to learn to do more with less each year to educate my students under increasing oversight and accountability. If vouchers are implemented in the state of Nevada, public school teachers will be expected to continue to do more with even fewer financial resources.

As the system functions now, public schools are funded at the state level on a per pupil basis, and every public school has to accept the students zoned for that school, no matter if they do not speak English or if they have a disability, because every child is legally entitled to a free and public education. The students are counted at a point early in the school year, and schools receive funding based on that count. Students come and go throughout the year in the public schools, often leaving one school to enroll in another school in the district. If a student is expelled from a school, which is a very difficult process, the student will be enrolled in a different school within the district.

The point is, the money for each student stays in the local public system, even as students come and go in individual schools. As one student leaves a school, another student will show up to use the funding of the student who left. The problem with the voucher system is that the private schools can accept the student at the beginning of the year, receive the funding from the state for the student, and then expel the student arbitrarily for a minor infraction that violates the rules of the private school. The student will then be forced to return to the public school system, which did not receive the money for the student but will be expected to educate that student without funding. What is stopping the private schools from accepting students and then expelling them and keeping the voucher money? The money stays in the private school and will not benefit any other students and ultimately increases the per pupil funding of students in the private school and decreases the financial support of the student in the public school.

A second problem with using vouchers to fund private and home schools is the accountability of how that money is spent and the ROI of that money in the form of student progress. Private schools do not have to report how they use the funds they receive to educate their students because of the private funding of the institution. If students begin using public money to fund their private school educations, then the private schools should be required to report how they are using the public money, the same as how public schools are required to be transparent with their budgets.

In addition, student progress in private schools is not required to be reported to the state, whereas the public schools are required by law to assess and report the growth of their students on various standardized assessments. As a taxpayer, I want to know if the money my taxes provide to send a student to a private school is being used productively. The fact that my tax money is contributing to religious education is an issue that does not seem to matter to our state’s judicial system, but the fact that the money may be spent on ineffective educational programs is a problem. If public tax dollars are being spent on private educations, then those private institutions that accept state-funded vouchers are responsible for reporting the academic performance of those students who benefit from the public money.

Ultimately, there are many problems with implementing vouchers in the state of Nevada, and the loss of funding to public schools and lack of transparency and accountability required of private schools are only two. If the government is going to ram through the use of vouchers, then the schools that accept them need to be held to the same standards of educating all students and transparency and accountability that the public institutions are held to.

YES on ESAs: A private school environment is better for some

by Richard R. Becker
There are some people who have the misconception that the Education Savings Account (ESA) Program in Nevada will somehow only help wealthy families. This isn’t our experience.
We, like many families, make as many sacrifices as we can to send our children to the schools of our choice. We do it because all children are different. We know this to be true because our son attended public school for his entire career and it was mostly fine for him, but our daughter is different in that she performs her best in a different environment.
Knowing this, most of her education has been in a home school or private school environment. She is currently in fifth grade and was headed for Faith Lutheran Middle School & High School next year. However, the failure of our legislature to act in favor of ESAs last year has put this school out of reach.
You see, as children get older, education budgets don’t always keep pace with the cost of tuition. Funding ESAs now would have helped offset the growing gap between our education budget and the cost of tuition, ensuring our daughter could have continued on the path she has worked so hard to obtain.
We now have to scramble to find other education options for her. We are hoping to “win the lottery” and be accepted into a charter school or find an alternative private school within our very tight budget to attend for a few years until ESA funding is resolved. The process has created an air of uncertainty and anxiety around education for the first time in her life.
What troubles me the most about this, as someone who teaches educational outreach classes at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is that educational success is often dictated by the right environment for the student and developing their love for education, unhindered by negative emotions. As educators, we want students to both be challenged and challenge themselves while experiencing a sense of anticipation and excitement in their accomplishment. It’s how they all develop a love of learning.
For this reason, I am hoping you listen to the voices of parents all across our state who support ESAs. They know what is best for their children. Finding an alternative source of funding to make ESAs a reality is more than the right thing to do, it is a critical step toward improving the education system in our state and will also assist in freeing up educational funds and reducing class sizes at public schools.
ESAs are a win-win in that they will support a life-changing program that provides children the opportunities they deserve to succeed. And as they succeed, they will be better prepared and more likely to pursue degrees and contribute to our communities as tomorrow’s leaders, teachers, doctors, engineers, artists, and whatever else they might dream up.

NO on ESAs: Hire quality teachers and raise expectations instead

by Scott Van Winkle

As a former teacher in the Clark County School District and the parent of a child in a private, faith-based pre-school, I can see the school choice law from both sides. One thing the media has missed is that the law favors wealthy students, who would benefit from the Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) the law creates more than poorer students, and is therefore unfair. On the other hand, it would create opportunities for some poor students to escape public schools where expectations are low, and educational outcomes are often worse for individual students. I side with the public school advocates who see the law as a threat.

The teachers’ union and organizations that support public schools see the ESAs as a money grab for private schools, aimed at diverting funding from the public school system toward schools that tend to be run by churches or religious non-profits. This plan does create concerns about public funding of religious organizations, which the Nevada constitution specifically outlaws, and that argument is the nutshell of the legal argument against the law and the reason the court has rightly ruled against the law.

On the other side, private school advocates, faith-based groups, and some parents see the ESAs as a way to increase choice in education, particularly from disadvantaged groups or kids who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford private school. The program would create competition for the public school system, even for parents who otherwise wouldn’t consider private school, because it allows parents to “opt out” of the system for their child, designating funds from tax money to subsidize their enrollment in private school.

The public school defenders see the issue as one of fairness to students who may not have the option or desire to attend private school, either because the schools are not in their neighborhoods or because they do not belong to a particular faith that would benefit from the ESAs. Diverting funds from the public school system to private schools is robbing the poor to feed the rich, they argue. The private school defenders describe the issue as one of fairness to students in poorer neighborhoods, where good teachers are harder to find, the facilities are older, and education in general faces greater obstacles, but in fact, more of the money would go to suburban schools than inner-city ones.

The problem comes down to low expectations for kids in poorer neighborhoods. The school choice law does not offer a viable solution to the problem it purports to solve. Raising expectations at low-performing schools has to happen, regardless of the student population. Whether individual students are better served by a transfer to private schools is not the issue. Individual students will be able to find a solution to a poor education if their parents are involved, advocate for higher standards, and find ways to teach their kids both inside and outside of school. The bigger issues facing public education today have to deal with perception, which becomes reality, that our public schools are failing.

CCSD has become a target because it is perceived as a giant bureaucracy, but the fact that it is the largest employer in Clark County does not mean that it is a one-size-fits-all organization. Every school has its own culture and organization, and teacher quality makes the biggest difference in the quality of education that every student receives. Focusing on teacher quality at the lower-performing schools is one solution. It isn’t possible even for good teachers to reach every kid, but it is possible to have high expectations and to help them learn — to go from where they are to where they can be — regardless of their economic situation. Attracting and retaining high quality teachers at low performing schools should be the goal, and we shouldn’t take resources away from those schools. Instead, we should incentivize teachers to teach long-term at lower-performing schools, not just with money but with recognition and respect.

The school choice law further erodes confidence in the system, as opposed to strengthening it. There is a lot of choice in CCSD right now, since kids can attend magnet schools or find a teacher or program that works for them. We need to change the perception that the system as a whole is failing, and this law is not the answer.

YES on ESAs: Education system shouldn’t prevent a choice to exit

by Kevin Magee

I’m a public-school teacher, and my dream is to open up a school and tutoring center that primarily serves underprivileged kids. This will be almost impossibly difficult without a program like Education Savings Accounts. Despite claiming to want to improve and modernize education, a lot of good people are fighting against a program that can achieve exactly that.

One practical effect of being against school choice measures such as ESAs is to grant only the rich and relatively well-off the ability to meaningfully exercise choice over their children’s education. They can afford private schools or choose to move to a neighborhood where there’s a school they like. For most however, that is a luxury, and unless there’s anyone out there in favor of banning private school and making it illegal to move, this is a glaring inequity.

Proponents of a public-school-only approach to education conflate public schools with public education more broadly. Publicly funded education, but not necessarily publicly managed schools, is still public education. Public schools are how most of us get our education, but they are one of many ways to educate a person. We’ve known since at least the 80s when it was closely studied, that one-to-one tutoring is a far more effective method for educating someone than a traditional classroom with 20-30 kids. ESAs will permit more diversity in our education system allowing parents to pursue alternate means of education like this.

Maybe some people just can’t stomach the thought of abandoning such a stable institution as public schools. After all, they’ve been with us, relatively unchanged, for over 150 years. But to some, that’s a bug, not a feature.

I understand skepticism about big, radical change, but the reality is that most people using ESAs will likely use them for private schools, which are very much known entities. There is no magical mechanism that makes public schools somehow educate children better than privately run schools. So at the very least, a switch from publicly managed to a more privately managed school system won’t look all that different. Add to that the fact that studies show strongly positive results on parental satisfaction among those who use school choice programs versus traditional public schools, and in the absolute worst case scenario you end up with a system that performs no worse, but in which parents are happier.

I’ve heard people claim that school choice destroys public schools, and even more inaccurately, that it destroys public education. It’s telling that public-school defenders openly recognize that, absent the de facto prohibition on parents’ ability to choose, we would likely have a different system. In other words, they assume that the only thing stopping “too many” parents from leaving the public-school system is their inability to afford it. That’s a pretty damning assumption coming from public school’s own advocates.

To say that ESA’s take funding from schools means that a particular school has a right over a particular student. This would be like saying I am destroying some of McDonalds’ profits every time I don’t eat there. Someone’s choice to not participate does not equate to actively destroying it.

This argument is also based on the idea that Nevada, and America in general, doesn’t spend enough on education, but this is hard to square with reality. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the United States spends more money per pupil on primary and secondary education than all other countries but Switzerland, Austria, Norway, and Luxemburg. While Nevada does spend below the national average, it’s right in line with the OECD average near countries like Japan, the United Kingdom, and Korea. If we’re spending roughly the same as Korea, whom many consider to have one of the best education systems around, and getting such different results, it’s clearly not a matter of funding.

There are ways to improve the ESA law. The funding level could be increased as part of a broad school funding reform. Simplify the Nevada Plan so that all education money, state and local, goes straight into the Distributed School Account. Then appropriate a matching per-pupil amount just for ESAs. This would dramatically increase the ESAs funding level, as well as equalize the state’s education funding formula, a goal of the left. Payouts for ESAs could even be made more progressive by further phasing down the payout based on income, which would free up money to get rid of the 100-day requirement.

NO on ESAs: Nevada should learn from failed Indiana voucher program

by Heather Witt

Nevada ranks last in the nation in public education, according to Education Week’s 2017 Quality Counts Report. Fifty-first out of 50 states and the District of Columbia. Our public schools have been failing for a number of years now. So isn’t it time we provide students with the opportunity to escape these failing public institutions? Don’t our students deserve the ability to escape these failing schools and attend schools that will better serve their needs? How can we, as a state, provide parents with the opportunity to choose better schools for their children? School choice along with Education Savings Accounts seem a clear and appropriate answer.

But what if we’re asking the wrong question? What if, instead of asking how we can provide parents with the opportunity to choose better schools, we ask what we can do to support struggling public schools? Especially since it’s generally the students in the worst performing schools who are unable to capitalize on voucher programs, as they often lack the transportation needed to get to those “better” schools, regardless of the cost of their tuition. Additionally, Nevada’s ESAs are not sufficient to cover the full tuition of many private schools and would likely only subsidize students families who’ve already made that choice.

The Washington Post recently reported on Indiana’s voucher program. After five years in implementation, with the requirement to first attend a public school swiftly lifted by the Indiana legislature, more than half of Indiana’s voucher recipients have never attended the state’s public schools and only 3% of new recipients in 2015 lived in the boundaries of F-rated public schools. The Post also reported on research that found Indianapolis students who used vouchers to transfer from public to private schools had no change in their language arts performance and had a decline in their math performance. Before seeking to fund a similar program in Nevada, taxpayers deserve a full and complete understanding of the impact on student achievement, on diversity in schools, and on the funding of our public schools.

This is my 6th year teaching in a Title I middle school, were a significant number of children qualify for free or reduced lunch. The last two years, I’ve fed my children breakfast in the classroom every morning. In addition to lacking sufficient food at home, many of my children lack sufficient financial, educational, and/or emotional support. They don’t have books, they don’t have Internet access, they don’t have parents that are able to help them with their homework. They have siblings to care for, they have work to do, they have social and emotional problems that I couldn’t imagine.

How about instead of giving parents a choice as to where to send their kids – which inevitably still leaves these kids behind –we instead provide them with the support they need from their public schools? How about we care more for our children? Provide them smaller class sizes so that teachers can build stronger supportive relationships. Make sure they have books at home. Provide them with the social and emotional support they need. How about we take the millions of dollars our state wants to invest in a state voucher program and fully fund our public schools? Why is that not an option?

Source:  Brown, Emily and McLaren, Mandy. How Indiana’s school voucher program soared, and what it says about education in the Trump era. Washington Post, 12/26/2016