Former special ed teacher faces off against voucher supporter for next NV governor

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by Félix Pérez

Nevada voters have a clear choice to make when it comes to who will drive education policy as their next governor: a lawyer who wants to eliminate a significant source of school funding and expand school vouchers or a former special education teacher with 20 years experience who was part of a successful lawsuit against the state’s voucher program.

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In his education plan released this month, attorney general Adam Laxalt doubled down on vouchers and pledged to eliminate the commerce tax, which is estimated to generate $400 million in the next two years to boost education funding.

Educators said Laxalt’s plan doesn’t add up.

“When it comes to properly funding Nevada schools, I am afraid that Adam Laxalt doesn’t understand basic math. Nevada’s schools are in desperate need of additional resources, but Adam Laxalt is focused only on subtraction,” said Ruben Murillo Jr., a special education teacher in Clark County and president of the Nevada State Education Association.

Laxalt, a rising star in national conservative circles, would double the cap on Opportunity Scholarships, a voucher program, to $64 million every two years and expand the state’s Education Savings Accounts, another voucher program whose funding mechanism was found unconstitutional by the Nevada Supreme Court. In a previous interview, Laxalt said, “I am a supporter of Education Savings Accounts as part of my broad commitment to creating more school choice in Nevada. I am proud of the work my office did defending ESAs all the way to the Nevada Supreme Court.”

Laxalt’s proposal to use scarce public school funding to fund private school vouchers is a nonstarter for educators.

“Nevada leaders have the responsibility to properly fund our public education system,” said Natha Anderson, a high school English teacher and president of the Washoe Education Association. “Any effort to move public dollars into private and for-profit schools hurts kids, schools and communities. Teachers get it, and so should our next governor.”

Laxalt’s opponent, Chris Giunchigliani, a former special education teacher, is a longtime opponent of vouchers. In 2015, Nevada became the fist state to pass a law offering private school vouchers to all students in the state regardless of income, disability or other special status. The state’s supreme court ruled in 2016 that the funding mechanism for the program, Education Savings Accounts, was unconstitutional. The legislature, which meets every two years, adjourned last year without the funding the program. In a newspaper column she wrote while the voucher program being litigated, Giunchigliani said ESA vouchers “take public taxpayer dollars to subsidize religious and private education,” adding:

We need to remember that private schools are not held to the same accountability and performance standards as Nevada’s public and charter schools. They don’t have to hire qualified teachers; they do not have to teach a standard curriculum; and if a private or religious school wants to reject science, they are entitled to do so by law. These schools can turn away kids who are deemed not to “fit in,” and statistics show that these are often children with disabilities, those from different cultures who may not speak English, or simply those who are behind in school.

Giunchigliani, the former president of the Nevada State Education Association and the Clark County Education Association, has pledged to fix the structural deficit in the state’s school funding formula. “I’m the only education person actually running for governor,” Giunchigliani said. “I made the decision to get in this race as a schoolteacher who is tired of all of the talk about let’s fund education.” Asked what issue is central to her campaign, she said,“It’s education. It’s fixing the education funding formula. It’s making sure the teachers have time to teach, that we adequately pay them.”

In her 16 years in the Nevada State Assembly, Giunchigliani, currently Clark County commissioner, was a relentless advocate for public education, leading the effort to secure funding for mandatory kindergarten and founding the Teachers Health Trust.

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