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Nevada Legislature Wraps Up With Significant Education Boost

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Nevada students would see another significant increase in state services, vouchers and smaller programs such as school gardens under a series of budget and policy measures lawmakers advanced as the 2017 legislative session came to an end Monday.

After four months of political negotiations in what is consistently one of the lowest-performing states in student achievement, Nevada lawmakers leave the biennial session having agreed to additional investments in K-12 schools totaling nearly $200 million.

The effort largely expands on reforms that Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval and lawmakers instituted alongside tax increases in 2015.

More than $100 million will be doled out to public schools based on the number of low-income, English-learning or special education students enrolled there who score in the bottom quartile on state assessments.

Sandoval has been pursuing a funding formula weighted to send more money to needy students throughout his tenure in the Capitol. Superintendent of Public Instruction Steve Canavero and Democratic Sen. Mo Denis rallied around the scheme this session after economic advisers projected nearly $100 million in unexpected state revenue.

“We’ve made unprecedented investments in our education,” Sandoval told reporters Monday.

Assemblyman Tyrone Thompson, a North Las Vegas Democrat and chairman of the Assembly Education Committee, said there was a monumental collaborative effort to figure out the weighted funding, which will send about $1,200 to schools per needy pupil, with the first funds going to lower-rated schools.

“I’m pleased because we saw a lot of the stakeholders at the table and put in many hours early-morning meetings and late-night meetings to talk it through and really try to make sure that it’s as equitable as possible with the resources that we have,” Thompson said.

The Legislature’s end is likely to also mean a contentious program to provide public assistance for private school tuition, textbooks, uniforms, tutors and other costs will continue to go unfunded for another two years.

Democrats in control of the Legislature scrapped the broad school voucher initiative last week but, to Republicans’ delight, are authorizing an additional $20 million in tax credits to similarly send to private schools what would otherwise be public funds.

Lawmakers and the governor struck the agreement after Republican state senators threatened to blow a nearly $290 million hole in the state budget.

Sandoval had proposed the state spend $60 million on Education Savings Accounts over the next two years. Instead, the state will spend an additional $20 million on Opportunity Scholarships, bringing the privately run program’s maximum amount of tax credits to about $33 million over the biennium.

“It’s not where we started, but it’s close,” Republican Assembly Minority Leader Paul Anderson said.

Families with income of less than 300 percent of the federal poverty rate — $60,000 annually for a family of three or $85,000 annually for a family of five — can qualify for the K-12 scholarships. Organizations that administer the program, such as AAA and groups specifically formed to link kids to private schools, can further define qualifications and limit them to specific schools. They cannot exceed $7,700 per student.

On Monday, lawmakers approved a proposal from Denis to provide $3.5 million in community college scholarships. Senate Bill 391 to create the Promise Scholarship passed unanimously.

They also approved $17 million in additional funding to be divided between K-12 schools in Clark and Washoe counties. It will cover an unexpected loss of $6.6 million for Reno-area schools caused largely by population distribution and the state’s per-pupil funding formula.

Other proposed investments awaiting the governor’s signature range from a $17 million increase for Sandoval’s elementary-level reading program to a $600,000 request from nonpartisan Sen. Patricia Farley and Democratic Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro for Las Vegas schools to grow vegetables on site.

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