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By Riley Snyder September 19, 2016

Group correct that Catherine Cortez Masto opposes new school choice program, but fudges details

The conservative-leaning LIBRE Initiative is using a new school choice program as political ammunition in Nevada’s competitive U.S. Senate race.

The grassroots nonprofit, which has financial ties to the billionaire Koch brothers, released a digital ad in English and Spanish on Sept. 13 accusing Democratic Senate candidate Catherine Cortez Masto of opposing an educational program favored by Hispanics.

"Latinos in Nevada support Educational Savings Accounts, helping more than 450,000 students access better schools," the ad says. "But Catherine Cortez Masto is against it."

The second part of the claim is not in dispute, as Cortez Masto clearly came out in opposition to the program in August, saying it diverts money from public schools.

But the ad overstates the Latino support and the number of people who are set to benefit from the ESA program, which has been tied up in lawsuits almost immediately after being passed.

ESA 411

Nevada lawmakers approved a bevy of new educational programs in 2015, but one of the most controversial has been the Education Savings Account program.

Approved by Republican lawmakers on a party-line vote, the bill creates a program allowing parents to pull their children out of public schools and receive roughly $5,100 (about 90 percent of yearly per-pupil funding) a year to be used for private education expenses — private school tuition, textbooks, transportation, etc.

It’s similar to a school voucher system, but program backers say the key difference is that the money is distributed through "education savings accounts," state-run accounts that reimburse parents for approved educational expenses.

Other states have created similar programs, but Nevada is unique in that all parents can apply for the program regardless of income or any other factor.

Several groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union’s Nevada branch, sued before the program could be implemented and successfully had a legal hold placed on the program. The state’s Supreme Court heard arguments on the program in late July, and both sides are still awaiting for a ruling from the court.

Total enrollment

Constant litigation hasn’t stopped the program from turning into political ad material.

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The ad text claims that "more than 450,000 students to benefit from school choice," citing a 2015 Lincoln County Register editorial.

That’s the total number of students in Nevada (now closer to 467,000), but isn’t anywhere close to the actual number of program applicants, which numbers around 7,800 at the most recent count.

The program is open to all students, but it is misleading to say that all of them will "benefit" from the program when the number of applicants is so small.

LIBRE Initiative spokesman Wadi Gaitan said in an email that continuing legal uncertainty over the program means that the number of applicants is an "incomplete" barometer of who the program is helping, as presumably some parents are waiting for the dust to settle before deciding to enroll in the program.

The ad’s vocal track differs from the text overlay as well, saying the program would help "more than 450,000 students access better schools."

Again, there are no barriers for parents to apply for the program, but it’s a bit far-fetched to assume that it will give literally every student in the state access to the school of their choosing given that tuition alone tends to cost more than the projected ESA stipend.

Average private school tuition in Las Vegas ranges from $8,700 to $9,600 a year, according to information from Demographic data released on program applicants shows that the majority of parents applying live in ZIP codes with higher-than-normal average household incomes (though income levels of applicants aren’t disclosed).

The ad also cites a 2015 poll funded by the American Federation for Children, a conservative-leaning nonprofit that champions "school choice." The group found that 71 percent of Nevada Hispanics polled favored the program.

More recent polling found that the program is still supported by voters, though not as strongly as the earlier poll suggests. A KTNV-TV 13 Action News/Rasmussen Reports poll from August found that Hispanic voters polled supported the program on a 47 to 35 percent basis, with 17 percent undecided.

Our ruling

A new ad from the LIBRE Initiative claims, "Latinos in Nevada support Educational Savings Accounts, helping more than 450,000 students access better schools. But Catherine Cortez Masto is against it."

There’s no question that Cortez Masto opposes the ESA program. But the ad exaggerates the size and scope of the program itself. Only a fraction of the state's 450,000 students have actually applied to be part of the program. The ad also accurately cites polls showing Hispanic support for the program, though recent polls show more modest support.

Because this ad is accurate but needs clarification, we rate it Mostly True.

Our Sources

Email interview with Wadi Gaitan, spokesman for LIBRE Initiative, Sept. 15, 2016

Las Vegas Sun, "School choice comes to a head," July 31, 2016

Las Vegas Sun, "Battle over school choice comes to a head before Nevada Supreme Court," July 29, 2016

," July 29, 2016

Las Vegas Review-Journal, "ACLU sues to stop Nevada education savings accounts," Aug. 27, 2015

Associated Press, "Cortez Masto opposes Education Savings Accounts program," Aug. 11, 2016

KTNV, "KTNV/RASMUSSEN POLL: Voters favor ESAs, energy deregulation and net metering ballot questions," Aug. 2, 2016

Lincoln County Record, "Courts must expedite approval of school choice law," Oct. 30, 2015

Las Vegas Sun, "Data: Majority of Nevadans seeking school vouchers live in upscale suburbs," Oct. 29, 2015

American Federation for Children, "Encuesta: Los hispanos en Nevada y a nivel nacional apoyan la opción escolar," Oct. 13, 2015

Reno Gazette-Journal, "Nevada parents to get unprecedented school choice," June 1, 2015

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Group correct that Catherine Cortez Masto opposes new school choice program, but fudges details

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