Democrat gubernatorial candidate Steve Sisolak unveiled his education platform last month and, despite his best efforts, he unintentionally made a strong case for expanding Nevada’s only funded educational-choice program: Opportunity Tax-Credit Scholarships.
“People want to help” improve education, said Sisolak, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “Businesses want to help. They just don’t know how.”
Sisolak is right — businesses do want to help improve education. And they should. Improving education, in addition to being a moral and ethical thing to do for future generations, is also an economic development issue. A better educated populace makes for better citizens, workers, entrepreneurs and investors.
Sisolak is also right about most businesses not knowing how.
What Sisolak failed to mention, however, is there already exists an effective and direct way for businesses to improve the educational experience for thousands of Nevada students — a way that immediately improves the education of low-income students, and benefits businesses with a tax break.
It’s called the Opportunity Tax-Credit Scholarship program, and it is Nevada’s only funded educational-choice program.
Under the program, businesses can donate money to private scholarship granting organizations and receive a dollar-for-dollar state tax credit against their Modified Business Tax liability. In 2016, donations were capped at $5.5 million dollars, but during the 2017 legislative session a one-time increase was approved, raising that cap to $32 million for the biennium.
Low-income students are then able to use these scholarships — which can be as high as $7,763 — to attend a private school of their choice. In other words, businesses are able to directly improve the educational experience of thousands of low-income Nevada students, and, for doing so, receive a tax benefit.
For Nevadans wanting to ensure quality education to every student, regardless of income or demographics, it’s a win-win.
Not only does the school-choice program let students escape the public schools that aren’t meeting their needs. It also lets private businesses provide low-income students with the same educational opportunities that wealthy families enjoy.
Of course, expanding or preserving this promising program wasn’t actually what Sisolak was proposing.
In fact, his solution specifically omitted this business-funded educational choice program.
Sisolak’s proposal instead mentions “making it easier” for businesses to invest in the same public-education system that has chronically failed generations of Nevadans, and has done so despite previous decades of massive support from business already. Thus, he offers threadbare schemes like “adopting” a school building, or funding a special program — not to mention raising taxes on business and everyone else.
Sisolak’s focus on the existing public school system is telling.
Despite his understanding that students deserve better, and that businesses need much better public education, Sisolak remains ensconced in the bubble of the educational establishment — a collection of cronies, unions and establishment interests that see virtually any parent-driven choice mechanism as a threat to their political power.
No sooner had the 2017 legislature expanded the Opportunity Scholarships, and Nevada State Education Association’s chief lobbyist, Chris Daly, told the media that his group would be setting its sights on the scholarship program — fighting to kick off it as many low-income kids as possible in 2019.
“We don’t like [the one time increase]. We’re going to hold the makers of this deal to their commitment that this was a one-time appropriation… and cut it to the $6 million or eliminate the program,” he told the Nevada Independent.
Why the hostility to the program from the education establishment?
Simple: It puts parents and businesses in the driver’s seat, rather than politicians, unions and bureaucrats.
Opportunity Scholarships should be considered precisely the type of solution that meets our goals as a state. It’s a school choice program, funded not by money reserved for public education but by the very businesses that would benefit from a better educated populace.
It is a program that simultaneously gives parents and students control over their education, while encouraging businesses to invest directly in the success of Nevada’s youth.
If Sisolak is serious about encouraging businesses to take an active role in improving the educational experience of Nevada’s younger generations, he needs to buck the party line of the state’s education establishment, and embrace Opportunity Tax-Credit Scholarships.
But don’t hold your breath.
If businesses really want to be involved, they should start by visiting schoolchoicenv.com to learn how to donate to a scholarship organization — and they should fight to expand Nevada’s only funded choice option.
Michael Schaus is communications director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.