Support for public education looms large in NV election, ground zero for US Senate control

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by Félix Pérez

It was early February of last year. A thousand educators, parents, students, civil rights activists and U.S. senators assembled across from the U.S. Capitol to voice their objection to the nomination of Betsy DeVos, widely panned as unqualified and because of her commitment to establishing the first ever national school voucher program. The too-close-to-call nomination vote was scheduled for the next day, and senators’ nerves were frayed from an unprecedented barrage of phone calls, letters, emails and protests.

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In the end, for the first time in the nation’s history, the vice president cast the tie-breaking vote. The Senate confirmed DeVos, 51-50, with two members of her party voting against her. One Republican senator who voted to confirm President Trump’s education secretary was Dean Heller of Nevada, despite the vocal opposition of many of his constituents.

Before his vote, Heller wrote, “Due to her commitment to improve our nation’s school system for all students and her focus on increasing parental engagement, I am supporting Betsy DeVos as our nation’s next Secretary of Education. She shares many of the same points of view as Governor Sandoval when it comes to our nation’s school systems. Having his support weighed heavily on my decision to vote for her confirmation.”

One constituent, writing in The Nevada Independent, said Heller’s vote was a “slap in the face.” He said, “It is clear: hundreds and possibly thousands of Heller’s constituents called to plead with him. They took the time to ask him to stand with us and fight for our children’s future. With his vote for DeVos, he did not listen to concerned Nevada citizens and instead chose party over country.”

Heller and DeVos share an affinity for private school vouchers, which drain scarce funding from public schools for private schools that are not required to meet the same accountability standards as public schools. Nevada made national news in June 2015 when the state legislature passed a universal school voucher program described as “vouchers on steroids” and “vouchers for all.” The state’s supreme court ruled in October 2016 that the funding mechanism for the program was unconstitutional. The legislature adjourned last year without the funding the program.

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Heller is being challenged by Jacky Rosen, a first-term member of Congress. Rosen has been endorsed by the state’s 24,000-member Nevada State Education Association. “Congresswoman Rosen has been a reliable partner working toward the vision of a quality public education for all Nevada students regardless of zip code or income level,” said Clark County special education teacher and NSEA President Ruben Murillo Jr. NSEA highlighted Rosen’s vocal advocacy for improving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and encouraging young girls to get interested in and explore careers in STEM fields.

Said Rosen of NSEA’s endorsement: “I understand the critical role public education plays in shaping our economic future because I was the first in my family to graduate from college, and my daughter is a proud product of Nevada’s public schools. . . I will always fight to ensure our teachers and our kids have the tools and resources to succeed.”

Rosen earned an ‘A’ on the National Education Association’s Legislative Report Card. Among her votes, Rosen:

  • Opposed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which undermines public education funding and create voucher-like schemes for the wealthy.
  • Voted against the legislation designed to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act.
  • Supported an amendment to restore/increase funding for after-school programs.
  • Opposed a budget resolution that called for deep cuts to programs such as education and healthcare in order to pave the way for massive tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.

Heller, on the other hand, received an ‘F’ on NEA’s report card. He voted for an amendment that provides tax advantages for high income taxpayers who use so-called 529 savings plans to finance tuition at K-12 private schools. He also supported the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which could cost Nevada $280 million in education funding over the next 10 years and create voucher-like schemes for the wealthy.

The Nevada primary is June 12.

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