As State Treasurer, my office was asked to administer the Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs). We acted expeditiously to establish rules for the program, which we completed over a year ago. With the help of the Attorney General’s office, we fought two lawsuits, finally ending up at the Nevada Supreme Court. Though the Court didn’t like the way the ESA’s were funded, the justices upheld the law’s constitutionality.
First, allow me to say a few words on the State Treasurer’s responsibilities. I am invariably described as “the guy who takes care of our money.” That’s true. We invest the approximately $3 billion in state funds. Since I took office, we have more than doubled the amount earned. We have increased the amount in the Local Government Investment Pool (LGIP) by close to seven times.
But, we do more, lots more. Our office handles the College Savings Accounts: we have totally restructured the education and outreach component of the program to encourage Nevada kids to save for college. We are guardians of Unclaimed Property, your money that has been handed over to the state. When I took office, the processing period for claims was 120 days. It is now 22 days.
So, yes, we do a whole lot more than just “take care of your money.” That includes administering the ESA’s.
Education Savings Accounts are a very important first step in improving Nevada’s K-12 education system. Clearly, we don’t have enough private schools and teachers to accommodate the potential demand. But, for the first time, the program recognizes that parents, not legislators, are the best judge of their children’s education.
The program has been labeled “a gift to the wealthy at the expense of the poor.” It is decidedly not. If anything, the program provides a helping hand to the middle class: working class and single moms, military families, children with special needs and minority parents who are unhappy with the education their children receive in public schools. Moreover, a recent article in the Las Vegas Review Journal pointed out that “two-thirds of the completed applications come from households making less than $50,000 a year.”
Why might these parents be unhappy? In spite of billions and billions of dollars given to the public schools, in a recent survey, Nevada ranked 51st (dead-last) on the quality of our education system.
Where are we now? After failing to include ESA funding in the Special Session that approved the $1.9 billion football stadium, the Governor has budgeted $60 million to fund ESAs. Sadly, that is nowhere near enough to pay for the number of applications we already have — over 8,500. These are applications we have in spite of all the uncertainty that has plagued the program.
In short, our state has a very, very big problem that not only deprives our kids of the education they deserve, but impacts Nevada’s ability to attract potential employers: our education system.
With all due respect to the Governor’s budget and his desire to create new state parks, fund a medical school and build a new engineering school, this problem is NOT a throw-away. It lies at the very essence of what our state is and hopes to be. Unless, the Governor and the Legislature make this an absolute, number one priority, our schools will continue to turn out valets, hot dog vendors and blackjack dealers. While there is nothing wrong with those jobs, but is that how we want to define Nevada in the decades to come?
Nevada voters will have to answer that question before electing those who represent them in 2018.
Dan Schwartz is Nevada’s State Treasurer.