LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — The debate over school choice came into focus Wednesday night as Gov. Joe Lombardo’s chief of staff answered questions at a legislative hearing in Carson City.

Like most fights, this one is over money. Not just how much, but where it goes.

Lombardo’s plan to add $2 billion in funding for education centers around Assembly Bill 400 (AB400), which would funnel tax dollars to a scholarship program that would pay tuition at private schools. There’s a lot more to AB400 than just that, but the scholarship funding is a contentious subject in the Democrat-controlled Nevada Legislature.

Assembly Speaker Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas) and Chief of Staff Ben Kieckhefer covered the topic in an exchange that gets to the root of why Democrats are not supporting funding for private schools.

“We’re having a conversation about school choice, but you’re asking us to make the choice to take the state’s money — the tax revenue — and not put it into the public education system that we all agree is underfunded,” Yeager said.

Assembly Speaker Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas).

“And even in the best of circumstances is probably going to take another five years to get there per Commission on School Funding but maybe longer because with inflation and everything else that’s going on, that’s a number that keeps increasing and the gap keeps getting bigger,” Yeager said.

“So, how do we as a Legislature justify to our constituents that we’re making the choice to take tax money, and instead of putting it into the chronically underfunded public education system we’re going to use it to fund private schools — in a way, not directly because it’s probably not constitutional for us to do that directly, but by incentivizing businesses, how do we justify that choice unless and until we get to the point where we have adequately funded public education in the state?”

Kieckhefer — a former Republican state senator — argued that it’s education that’s at issue, not where the funding goes.

“Mr. Speaker, I think that the answer to your constituents is that you trust them. And you’re not funding public schools, you’re not funding private schools. You’re funding their children’s education,” he said.

“You’re giving them the opportunity to choose the educational environment that is best suited for their child,” Kieckhefer said.

Gov. Joe Lombardo’s Chief of Staff Ben Kieckhefer.

Yeager’s questions about the funding for “Opportunity Scholarships” revealed that $25 million at the outset would eventually grow to a projected $500 million. He said that’s a problem for many of his constituents.

The scholarships are valued in a range from $8,613 to $12,491, depending several factors.

Yeager also delved into who would qualify under AB400. The idea that scholarships would go to families that could already afford private education is another sticking point for Democrats.

Lombardo’s proposal would allow scholarships to go to households that make as much as $150,000 per year — a big jump from the previous ceiling of $83,000 as outlined by Republicans.

Yeager pointed out that Nevada’s median income in 2020 was only $32,000. With two earners in a household, that would still be less than the currently $83,000 ceiling.

But Republicans are intent on helping families who don’t want their kids in public schools.

“The highest-funded, highest-performing public school in this state may not be right for every child. In fact, it’s not,” Kieckhefer said. “We trust that parent, that grandparent, that aunt or uncle who is helping guide that child’s education to make those choices. We can do both. This is not an either-or proposition.”

Kieckhefer acknowledged that school choice is already available. “It just shouldn’t exist only for people who can afford it,” he said.

Yeager responded, “I understand the perspective. I do. And I think we can do both, but I think we ought not to do both until we get to a point where we actually adequately fund education in this state.”

Nevada State Education Superintendent Jhone Ebert joined Kieckhefer in presenting AB400, which establishes a “heightened level” of expectation. “The vast majority of this bill addresses traditional public education,” Kieckhefer said.

“We cannot set high expectations and demand accountability, however, without providing the fiscal and policy support necessary for success,” he said.

AB400 contains four components:

  • School choice
  • Early childhood literacy
  • Accountability
  • Teacher pipeline

John Vellardita, executive director of the Clark County Education Association, said AB400 provides what Nevada needs to attract — and keep — new teachers, along with a companion bill, AB428 — the “pipeline” bill. “It’s imperative that we finally build this pipeline that we ensure is sustainable for years to come,” he said.

Vellardita said Nevada will need 19,000 teachers — 14,000 just in Clark County — over the next 10 years.

The bill also allows retired teachers to return immediately without jeoparding their retirement benefits.