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74 Interview: State Senator Scott Hammond on the Rise of Nevada’s ESA Program — and the Challenges Ahead

By Carolyn Phenicie | May 17, 2016

Photo: Courtesy Facebook
See previous 74 interviews: former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson, former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston.
(Washington, D.C.)
Ideas for new legislation can hatch in many places – in an advocacy group, among concerned citizens, or at think tanks. In the case of Nevada’s landmark education savings account bill, some of it happened entirely by chance.
The story began when state Sen. Scott Hammond’s wife, Tonya, described an article she had read about the nation’s first ESA program, in Arizona, which serves children with disabilities, those in failing schools and others who may need specialized schooling. Hammond, a Republican, taught for many years before becoming a lawmaker and currently serves as assistant principal in a Las Vegas charter school in addition to performing his legislative duties.
The Arizona story inspired him, he said, and he resolved to bring ESAs to Nevada.
“We’ve always had these discussions around the dinner table, in front of our kids,” he told The 74 following an American Enterprise Institute conference about the future of ESAs, an increasingly common form of school choice in which parents can direct their children's state school dollars to other education choices.
Last year, Hammond proposed an ESA law for Nevada that allowed parents to use their children’s per-pupil state funding allotment for private school, homeschool materials, private tutoring, or other services. Children with disabilities or lower-income families were entitled to 100 percent of their state per-pupil funding; other children got 90 percent, with the additional ten percent staying at their assigned public school.
The proposal passed but is currently on hold pending litigation.
Because it allows parents to take their children out of the public system, Hammond’s current employer, the Somerset Lone Mountain Academy, could lose pupils and dollars – and that’s okay, he said.
“It is about making sure the kids get what they need,” he said.
Just like charters push public schools to become better and offer more magnet and choice programs, education savings accounts will push charters, he said. “There will be competition, yes, definitely. It’s not going to always be friendly, but it’s going to be competitive.”
Two points in the article his wife read about Arizona’s ESA program particularly caught Hammond’s attention: the many eligible education options, and what he deemed an element of “fiscal responsibility.”
“You could look for programs and find two different servicers, they might actually supply the product and do it in the same way, efficiently and correctly…and one may [offer it] at a lower price,” he explained. “So now you’re going, ‘That lower price, I can save this much money and put it into another service that I need.’ To me it taught that other part, and that is using the money wisely.”
After Hammond’s wife first brought the idea of ESAs to his attention, he focused on finding more information about the program — which led to another lucky chance.
At a charter school conference in Las Vegas in 2014, he ran into Elissa Wahl, a member of the state’s charter school authority. Near the end of the conference, Wahl introduced him to Michael Chartier, the government relations director at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.
Chartier was packing up to leave, but invited Hammond to a Salt Lake City briefing for state legislators later in the summer. Coincidentally, Hammond planned to be in the Utah capital at the same time to visit his wife’s family. He and Tonya left their four children with her family and headed to the briefing along with several of Hammond’s colleagues from the Nevada legislature.
Hammond would go on to introduce the bill in March 2015, then worked largely behind the scenes to win the support of other legislators. Some Republicans questioned the specifics of the program and how it would affect the state budget, but they all supported the basic idea, he said.
The bill passed through the senate education committee and was sent to the finance committee. Although there may be plenty of legitimate jurisdictional reasons to send a bill there, it’s also often where legislation is sent to quietly die, Hammond said.
“I know some legislators who have gone crazy when their bill has gone to the senate finance committee,” he said. “They go before the press and yell and holler, ‘How could this happen?’ ‘I know who’s behind it.’ ‘I’ll get even,’ or whatever. I just didn’t do that.”
Instead, Hammond kept up what he had been doing all along — working outside the spotlight to assuage concerns and answer questions.
And banishment to the finance committee might have worked in his favor.
After going on alert when the bill was passed by the education committee, opponents became “happy-go-lucky” when it was directed to the finance committee, Hammond said, and appeared to shift their focus to other legislative priorities.
(The 74: Desperate Times Call for Urgent School Reforms in Nevada)
“They just kind of lost track, and quite frankly I don’t think they were too worried about it until the last week or so [before it passed], when all of a sudden I started getting some movement, getting some traction,” Hammond said. The bill went on to pass on party-line votes.
Hammond credits his ability to balance legislative duties and advocacy work — including more frequent invitations to speak about his bill and ESAs — to his accommodating family and school colleagues. During his interview with The 74, he received a text message photo of his wife, who assists children with disabilities at the Lone Mountain Academy, with the school’s principal and other colleagues watching his talk at AEI via livestream.
It was her idea for him to run for state legislature, he said, and she has supported him throughout his political career. “There are times we know it takes away from our family, but we try to make up for it later on,” he said. His children attend the Lone Mountain school, so he sees them during the day, and they come on the campaign trail with him.
Hammond served one term in the state assembly before being elected to the State Senate in 2012 and is up for re-election this year. Should he return to office, he wants to work on the state’s education funding formula, which hasn’t been updated for decades.
“You talk about the model of education being outdated — the factory style where you sit them down in lines and rows and lecture to them — so has funding,” he said. “I realize as much as any of my colleagues that each child is going to spend different amounts on education, and we have to look at that. We have to tackle that funding formula and put the money into the hands of the students who need it the most.”
The battle over ESAs isn’t over, though.
Not long after it passed and was signed by the governor, opponents filed two lawsuits challenging the new law. One, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, argues that the program illegally uses public money to support religious institutions. The case is pending in a state circuit court. The judge hearing the case is up for re-election this year, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported.
“Politics plays a big role in…almost every corner of Nevada, and here you’re seeing it too,” Hammond said.
Another complaint, which has reached the state Supreme Court, was filed by parents and residents who say the program violates a provision in state law requiring legislators to set aside money that funds traditional public education. He predicted the state high court would wait for the first lawsuit to work its way through appeals so it could then be joined with the one already before the court. He’s confident there are enough legal precedents from other states to convince the justices to allow the program to continue.
He also knows, though, that the real work for kids isn’t finished. “I got to throw the confetti at the end of the passage, but I knew that wasn’t the end. Now we’re seeing the legal challenges, and even after the legal challenges it’s about implementation. It’s not over yet.”
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