Magazine | July 20, 2015, Issue

Nevada’s Bet on School Choice

How Governor Brian Sandoval won an important education reform

Governor Brian Sandoval of Nevada once said that he envied Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Did Sandoval really want to put up with the massive protests, death threats, and recall election? “I’d take it,” he said, according to an account in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “if I could have Republican majorities in the Nevada legislature.”

Only a conservative governor who wants to push ambitious reforms would say such a thing — and last November, Sandoval got his wish. To the surprise of just about everyone, his fellow Republicans captured both chambers of Nevada’s statehouse. So when Sandoval gave his state-of-the-state address in January, the GOP controlled the executive and legislative branches in Carson City for the first time since the 1920s. “We stand at a unique moment in time,” he said. “Tonight we begin writing the next chapter.”

Then he announced his plan for the biggest tax hike in the history of Nevada.

In that moment, Sandoval established himself as the kind of politician that conservatives love to hate: the tax-and-spend Republican. The editorialists of Investor’s Business Daily dubbed him the nation’s worst governor. Yet it’s not so simple. Just as Nevada is a paradox — a socially conservative state with an economy that depends on blackjack and hookers — so is Sandoval. In June, shortly before he approved the tax increase, he signed a law that creates the most sweeping school-choice program in the country. “When he did that, he jumped to the head of the pack on educational choice and school reform,” says Robert Enlow of the Friedman Foundation — and that’s “Friedman” as in “Milton Friedman.”

Next year, when Sandoval shows up on vice-presidential short lists, nobody will accuse him of failing to get things done. Conservatives will grumble about the tax plan, but they’ll also see a lot to like: a popular figure in a swing state who, as one of just two Hispanic governors, possesses a rare combination of ethnic appeal and executive experience. And then there’s that school-choice triumph, which may be the most important conservative policy achievement in any state this year. Politics often involves compromise, and this is a trade that a lot of conservatives might be happy to make: new taxes in a low-tax state in exchange for a reform that could break up the government monopoly on K–12 education. Yet it’s also a false choice. In a state government dominated by the GOP, conservatives should be able to expect the good without having to endure the bad. So if conservatives at the national level ever feel tempted to gamble on Sandoval, they might want to remember that what happens in Nevada probably should stay in Nevada.

The 51-year-old Sandoval was born in California but moved to the Silver State as a boy. He likes to talk about how his father made him clean out sheep pens — and always jokes that it prepared him for a life in politics. He went to the University of Nevada at Reno, interned for Republican senator Paul Laxalt, and earned a law degree from Ohio State. Then he began his political climb, first winning a seat in Nevada’s state assembly and later chairing the state’s gaming commission. In 2002, he ran for attorney general and won nearly 60 percent of the vote. Although he was a pro-choicer in a pro-life party, he appeared to have a bright future in GOP politics.

At least that’s what Harry Reid thought. The longtime Democratic senator had won reelection in 1998 by only a few hundred votes — and he knew a potential threat when he saw one. So he approached Sandoval about becoming a federal judge. In 2004, Reid recommended him for a vacancy. The next year, President Bush nominated Sandoval and the Senate confirmed him unanimously to the lifetime job.

Sandoval was just 42 and might have spent the rest of his career in a black robe, never again having to give a campaign speech at a Lincoln Day dinner. “I don’t wake up every morning thinking about a different office,” he told the Reno Gazette. By 2010, however, he was doing just that. The housing collapse had hurt Nevada more than almost any other state and, to complicate matters, a series of scandals had hobbled Republican governor Jim Gibbons. Sandoval challenged the incumbent in the GOP primary, beat him handily, and went on to defeat Rory Reid, the son of the senator, in the general election.

When Sandoval took office, Nevada suffered from among the country’s worst rates of unemployment, foreclosure, and bankruptcy. “Raising taxes would be the worst thing we could do when Nevada families and businesses are struggling,” he said. Even so, he supported the extension of $1.2 billion in “temporary” increases to the payroll and sales taxes, approved at the height of the economic crisis in 2009. He also became the first Republican governor to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. On its fiscal-policy report card for governors, the libertarian Cato Institute gave him a grade of C. “He did not govern as a conservative,” says Andy Matthews of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a free-market think tank.

As he prepared for reelection in 2014, Sandoval could boast of an economy that had cut its unemployment rate in half. Yet he also confronted a new challenge to Nevada’s comeback: a ballot initiative, pushed by teachers’ unions, to raise money for public education with a big new tax on businesses. Sandoval spent much of the year urging voters to reject it. He promised (in a campaign flyer) “to keep taxes low.” He also said he had a plan to improve school funding but would not release it until after the election. In November, amid the GOP wave, the tax measure lost badly and Sandoval coasted to reelection, capturing 70 percent of the vote.

“I was euphoric because Republicans were in control of everything,” says Ira Hansen, a GOP state assemblyman. “Then came the disappointments.”

On January 15, Sandoval announced his agenda for this year’s legislative session. “For four years, we have held the line on spending,” he said. Because of population growth, he continued, “our current revenue structures” are no longer adequate. He mentioned those “temporary” tax increases from six years earlier — and then demonstrated the truth behind the adage that there’s nothing as permanent as a “temporary” government program. “It’s time we are honest with ourselves,” he said. “These revenues are now a part of our comprehensive budget.” Yet this was not enough: “We must identify new sources of revenue.” He went on to propose a version of the same business tax that he had fought against less than three months earlier. He also called for new charges on cigarettes and for increased business-license fees. In the end, he wanted to raise taxes by more than $700 million per year. A little more than half would go to new spending on public schools.

Democrats loved it. “We’ve been pushing to raise taxes and invest in education for a decade,” says Aaron D. Ford, the minority leader in the state senate. “It was refreshing to work with a governor who bucks some of the worst impulses of his own party.” Conservatives described it a different way. “Sandoval is the absolute best governor the Democrats have ever had,” says Michele Fiore, a Republican assemblywoman.

It’s tough to raise taxes in Nevada: The state constitution requires a two-thirds supermajority in each chamber of the legislature. This meant that conservatives could block a tax hike by clinging to just 15 anti-tax votes in the assembly, where Republicans held 25 seats. They were even able to point to an alternative budget, prepared by Republican state controller Ron Knecht, that included no tax increases and paid for new education funding through spending cuts, such as requiring local-government employees to contribute more to their pensions, in the sort of move that Sandoval claimed to admire in Walker’s Wisconsin.

Yet this went nowhere. “We received a polite hearing and dismissal” in the legislature, says Knecht.

Instead, the governor stitched together his coalition of Sandovalistas: moderate Republicans combined with every Democratic lawmaker. The GOP members of this partnership were so eager to persuade the Democrats to join them for the final vote on taxes that they even agreed to restore a prevailing-wage law that they had voted to eliminate earlier in the session, but that unions favored. “It became almost comical,” says Chuck Muth of Citizen Outreach, a conservative grassroots group that may offer a ballot initiative to repeal the new taxes. “What’s the point of electing Republicans if they’re going to trade away conservative policies to win Democratic support for tax hikes?”

Then came the breakthrough victory for school choice, which every Democrat in the legislature opposed. For years, Sandoval had spoken favorably about giving parents more control over the education of their children, and Nevada had taken several small steps in this direction. On June 2, however, Sandoval signed into law the country’s most aggressive attempt to introduce markets to K–12 education. The legislation places state aid for children into education-savings accounts and allows parents to tap into these funds for anything from Catholic-school fees to the costs of homeschooling or online courses. Unused money rolls over and becomes available for college tuition.

“This is seismic,” says Clint Bolick of the Goldwater Institute, a free-market think tank that pioneered the concept in Arizona. “Nevada is helping drag public education into the 21st century.”

Up to now, the few state school-choice plans that exist have had limited eligibility: They are available to special-needs children in Florida, low-income families in Indiana, and so on. Nevada’s law, by contrast, makes the funding available to all public-school children, who account for 93 percent of the school-age population. Only students who are already enrolled in private schools or taught at home won’t benefit — and if they attend public schools for a hundred days, they’ll receive accounts as well. “The level of school choice the law will permit is unprecedented,” said Education Week.

Sandoval deserves credit for the law, but he wasn’t its champion. That role belongs to Scott Hammond, a Republican state senator who is also a public-school teacher. Last August, Hammond attended a legislative-training program, sponsored by the Friedman Foundation, in Salt Lake City. That’s where he learned about education-savings accounts. When he returned to Nevada, he knew he wanted to push the idea — and when Republicans did so well in the November elections, he knew he had a shot at success. “The governor and I talked about it during the first week of the session,” he says. Sandoval told Hammond to draft a bill and rally support among his colleagues. To the extent that Sandoval led, he led from behind, devoting most of his energy to the budget but also keeping tabs on Hammond’s progress. “He was very helpful at the end, when he said he would sign the bill if it came to his desk,” says Hammond.

The governor made good on this promise. He now says he wants to concentrate on infrastructure and higher education, but he won’t have the opportunity until 2017 because Nevada’s legislature meets only once every two years. By then, the United States will have a new president, and Sandoval will have gotten a hard look as a potential running mate or cabinet official. If he’s still in Carson City, conservatives should wish him luck in his last chance to act more like Scott Walker.

John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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