Ep 9: What Really Happened with Nevada’s ESAs with Michael Chartier

July 20, 2017

Not sure what actually went down in Nevada this legislative session? What really stalled the nation’s first nearly universal ESA program? Who’s to blame, and is the future for education savings accounts looking dim or bright? EdChoice President and CEO Robert Enlow joins Director of State Engagement Michael Chartier in our latest podcast, where they get candid about the state of affairs in Nevada when it comes to the legislature, school choice and most important, the thousands of families in need of educational options. Listen now!

Enlow: Hi, and welcome to the next installment of EdChoice Chats. I’m Robert Enlow, president and CEO of EdChoice, and I’m here today with Michael Chartier, our fearless leader of Nevada efforts, among many other things he does for EdChoice. First of all, you want to introduce yourself, Michael. Introduce yourself to everyone.

Chartier: This is Michael. I’m the state director for Nevada, and I’m happy to be on my very first EdChoice podcast.

Enlow: That’s awesome. We’re glad to have you. Michael, let’s go back a couple of years. You come to the foundation, you come to EdChoice and you start working this little state like Nevada and nothing is happening, and we do some training. Talk about what happened in 2015 and the excitement and what occurred.

Chartier: I think the biggest thing that happened was we hosted a training for Nevada state legislators, among other groups. Other legislators came to that training. A good contingent of Nevada legislators came to our training in Salt Lake City and learned about the different aspects of school choice. There was a particular legislator there named Scott Hammond who really liked the concept of ESAs.

He decided to go back to his state and make this his passion for the next session, the 2015 session, to work on ESA (education savings account) language. During that time, there was an election in 2015. The legislature flipped from Democrats, who controlled both the Assembly and the Senate, to Republicans, and there was a large Republican majority. The Senate and Assembly caucuses bought into the concept of ESAs. The Nevada legislature passed, and Gov. Sandoval signed, at that point, the most expansive ESA program in the nation.

Enlow: Now, ESAs, for everyone who’s listening, are education savings accounts or empowerment scholarship accounts, depending how you frame them and what state. In Nevada lightning struck, right? Describe a little bit what you think it took to get to that lightning strike and, actually, how many families were ready to take advantage of that.

Chartier: I think the biggest thing was educating folks in the state as well as legislators about how these programs work in other states and how it could work for their state. How would the money work, how would the accountability work, how would the state oversee the expenditure of funds and those sorts of things. We spent a lot of time with a lot of different legislators walking them through that path. I’m sorry, what was the second question?

Enlow: The question here is about, like, so lightning strikes, so education was important, but what else had to happen? What else had to occur for that bill to get passed?

Chartier: I think the biggest thing was to have a sufficient number of legislators who believed in educational choice to vote yes on the bill.

Enlow: The immediate result of that was how many parents signed up?

Chartier: Oh, amount of parents, thank you, yes. We had over 10,000 applications. We think that’s about 9,000 families that have signed up for the program. It’s a little over 2 percent of the public school-aged population in the state signed up in the first year for the program.

Enlow: You have this incredible lightning strike, this incredible hero in Scott Hammond and your incredible work in EdChoice and others, those of us, the very few who were at the beginning. You have 10,000 families signing up. What happened next?

Chartier: As typically has happened, the opponents of all things good challenged the ESA legislation in two separate lawsuits. There was the Lopez case and the Duncan case, sued by different folks. The folks in the Lopez, the Educate Nevada Now, which is part of the Rogers Foundation, received an injunction against the program just right before Christmas, in fact, of 2015. That effectively shut down the program then, and we had to work our way through the courts making it all the way up to the Nevada Supreme Court.

Eventually, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled. It was a large victory for us. Essentially it said, “ESAs are completely constitutional,” but they challenged the funding mechanism. The Supreme Court essentially said that the Nevada legislature didn’t fund the program, so they kicked it back to the legislature to pass an appropriation for education savings accounts, and we were hoping to have done that this past session.

Enlow: At the beginning of 2015 lightning strikes, you pass a nearly universal choice bill. You have 10,000 families sign up. The opponents of school choice sue, and they create an injunction. So 2016 session goes by, nothing happens while it’s going through the court. We win a massive court case, but then have to get new funding for it.

I actually described it at one point. It was like ordering the best bottle of wine you’ve ever had in your life and realizing the next day you put it on the wrong credit card. That’s sort of what I used to say. Now fast forward to this year. What happened between the court case and this session this year? What was different?

Chartier: As you all know, there was a big presidential election. Donald Trump won and became president. There was a big red wave, but then, in Nevada, the opposite happened, actually. There was a blue wave, and the Democrats took the Assembly and the Senate back from control of the Republicans, large margins in the Assembly, one seat in the Senate and one member who was formerly a Republican flipped and began to caucus with the Democrats. They took back over and they made it part of their mission to stop educational choice in the state.

Enlow: We had Gov. Sandoval then. He was saying at the beginning of 2017, “This is my dying issue. I am going to be your hero.” What did he say?

Chartier: He said that he was going to make it part of his legacy, that ESAs were part of his legacy. That didn’t happen. We don’t have ESAs in Nevada, and Gov. Sandoval was one of the people that let down thousands of families.

Enlow: His legacy is one of failure, is what you’d say on this issue?

Chartier: Those were his words, that it was going to be his legacy, not mine, but it appears that he did not live up to that. Many other governors out there did and have fought for school choice and education savings accounts and vouchers. Yeah, he’s not in that list of governors, like Gov. Doug Ducey (of Arizona) and (former) Gov. Mitch Daniels (of Indiana), for example.

Enlow: Yeah, but it wasn’t just Gov. Sandoval who, obviously, didn’t live up to his word and what he said publicly. It had to be others who weren’t willing to give those families options. Tell me a little bit more about what happened.

Chartier: Originally, the Governor put in $60 million in his budget, the Governor’s recommended budget. That stayed throughout the course of the session. It was eventually, at the very end, stripped out by the Democrats in the Senate who put that $60 million into the distributive school account, which funds public schools. The Republicans were very angry and voted against something called the CIP, the capital improvement, something.

I’m blanking on it, but it was the CIP bill, and it basically had property tax revenue to fund bond payments, had the veterans home, the Nevada Veterans Home. It had UNLV’s medical school in it, and it required a two-thirds vote, so, essentially, it had to have been two Republicans that would flip over and vote for the CIP with the Democrats in order for that to pass. The Governor then sent out his staff members to lobby the Republicans to pass the CIP. That was their only source of leverage to help fund the education savings accounts. Essentially, he got three Republicans to flip over and vote for that, so there were three Republicans that, basically, gave away their leverage for ESAs.

Enlow: Okay, now we have a situation where we have a constitutional program that has no money again, now be heading into its third year without any money. Describe how you think the parents feel, or what you heard the parents saying, what they were testifying about. Describe how you think they would respond to this. What do you think if they were sitting in your chair right now, how would they respond?

Chartier: They’re angry. There’s no better way to describe that they’re angry. Some of them are sad and all of that. Some thought this was too good to be true, but for the most part for the parents that I have talked to and I listened to testify and attend rallies, they’re angry. They felt let down.

They saw this as a program that would help their kids, and they signed up for it. There were 10,000 applications for people that signed up for this, and they’re mad because they made life decisions about where they were going to send their kids to school and how they were going to get them there and all those sorts of things, expecting this money to come and the money never did. It was as simple as passing the funding. The program was already there. All they needed to do was fund it.

Enlow: It seems like you’re pretty passionate about it, too.

Chartier: I’m pretty passionate. You talk to these families and talk to these kids and these parents, and they wanted this. It’s kind of sad to see that Nevada did something so good to help these families, and they reneged on that promise. There’s no other way to describe other than they reneged on a promise they made to these families.

Enlow: They did get a $20 million one-time gift for the increase in the tax-credit scholarship program, which is another program they have there. Some people in the reform movement are calling that a win. Do you agree with that?

Chartier: It’s not a win, no. As you pointed out, it’s a one-time increase of funds. It will help kids, that is undoubted that it will help some families, but it’s not nearly as expansive as we needed it to be. The Governor asked for $60 million. They settled on $20 million. Clearly, there’s a difference of $40 million dollars there in funds that won’t go to help kids get a better education. The program, unless they vote to increase that in the next session, we’re talking about that $20 million will go away, and we’ll end up somewhere around, I don’t know, what is it, $8 million when you factor in the escalator clause. That’s a big difference there, so I would not consider that a win. It will help families. It’s charity. Really, it’s charity. It’s not transformational.

Enlow: I couldn’t agree with you more. Let me sort of think, then, as we wrap up here. Tell me what you think the future holds in Nevada.

Chartier: I think that there’s some positive spots. The law is still on the books. There will be two years of time to educate citizens and families and legislators about the power of ESAs and what they can do for families. In two years, anything can happen. There’s going to be new elections out there, so new people to educate and new people to hear our message.

All they would just need is that funding because the bones of the program are there. But, I am worried. Absent that, nothing will change and the program could be done away with by the legislature. That’s something we definitely wouldn’t want to happen. There are bright spots, but there’s also dark clouds out there, I think. I think it’s going to take a lot of education to get Nevada over the hump that it needs to get over.

Enlow: All right, so last question. You have 10 seconds to say what you think the legislators in Nevada should do, what you think parents should do, and what do you think all the reform groups should do to go forward?

Chartier: I think the legislators should vote for universal funding for the ESAs. Make sure the funding is tied to the needs of kids, wherever the kid wants to go to school. In any educational environment, let that funding follow the kids there, public, private, charter or ESA kids. I think that funding needs to follow there.

The parents: Make your voices heard. Let them know what this program meant to you and what it will mean for you and what it could mean for you moving forward. Let them know what you think about this, and reformers, buy in. Go big and go bold was the catchphrase of one of the last education reform conferences. Nevada was big and it was bold. Let’s always aim for that high mark. We should fight tooth and nail to make that happen and not take anything less than full victory.

Enlow: I couldn’t agree with you more. We come to the end of our chat. I want to say thank you. For those who out there are listening, this is Robert Enlow at EdChoice, and I want to say, as the president and CEO, we couldn’t be happier for what Michel Chartier has done in Nevada. He’s been an incredible leader out there. We are glad to have him out there trying to help the families in Nevada and the policymakers understand how to advance choice. Join us next time for our next installment of EdChoice Chats.