CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Democrats in the Nevada Legislature on Thursday disputed the validity of State Treasurer Dan Schwartz’s aggressive tactics to increase participation in certain education programs.
The politicians clashed over control of hot-button programs for school vouchers and college savings accounts amid a broader debate on where to send money to improve an education system that turns out some of the worst test scores and highest drop-out rates in the nation.
Schwartz, a Republican, told lawmakers Thursday that he acted within his authority when he defied them and offered incentives for state-backed college investment funds.
Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford says he believes Schwartz abused his discretion this month by offering $200 bonuses to the first 800 parents of kindergarteners who open an account.
Lawmakers told him not to do that in June.
Schwartz said he did not need the Legislature’s permission because the change was approved by a state board, which he chairs, and did not require additional funds. The state could get a better understanding of the program because he took initiative, and that fervor is what Nevada’s “education problem” needs, Schwartz said.
“We spend billions and billions of dollars on education and the question is: What do we get for it?” Schwartz said of Nevadans. “My attempt to show you that this added incentive works was within that frame.”
Ford says he won’t seek action against Schwartz, but he adds that the treasurer’s decisions hurt the legislative budget process and intra-governmental trust. He questioned whether Schwartz would threaten the governor and Legislature’s constitutional power to craft the state budget, including the portion on the table Thursday to underwrite the treasurer’s office.
“We are the legislators, Mr. Schwartz, you’re not a legislator,” Ford said. “I’m not sure how I can even really consider this and know in good faith that we’re going to get what we bargained for.”
Ford also challenged Schwartz’s advocacy of a school voucher system the treasurer is tasked with implementing.
Schwartz argued his duty to educate Nevadans about the program includes promoting it.
Ford and Sen. Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, disagreed, saying Schwartz’s job is to enroll people in various programs and distribute funds, not decide school funding policies.
“Last I checked, you’re the treasurer and I think we have a Department of Education that’re the experts on education,” said Denis, chairman of the Senate Education Committee and former leader of Senate Democrats.
The Education Savings Account program that would provide state dollars for families to spend on private schooling and tutors — an alternative to public education — has been stalled for two years under legal challenges and a judge’s ruling that its funds must be separated from dollars dedicated to public education. Lawmakers and Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval are considering how to fix that funding mechanism and how much to give the program.
Grant Hewitt, Schwartz’s chief of staff, said more than 400 people are fully enrolled in the program. The treasurer’s office has given some form of approval to roughly 8,000 other applicants who have not completed the application or not taken the final step of completing the enrollment online.