“Now I know how to work with the system better,” remarked Chris Edwards as he confirmed he’s running for re-election in 2016. “I want to help bring the reforms we passed in the 2015 State Legislature to fruition.”

Assemblyman Chris Edwards (R-AD19) addresses a town hall meeting in Mesquite, Sep. 16. Edwards announced he is running for re-election in 2016. Photo by Barbara Ellestad.

Assemblyman Chris Edwards (R-AD19) addresses a town hall meeting in Mesquite, Sep. 16. Edwards announced he is running for re-election in 2016. Photo by Barbara Ellestad.

Edwards (R) won his District 19 Assembly seat in 2014 representing Mesquite in an election that saw Republicans keep the Governor’s house and take the majorities in both the State Senate and Assembly. “I want to continue helping make things better in our state and help the Republicans to maintain the majority in both houses of the Legislature,” Edwards told the Mesquite Local News last week.

He recently conducted a town hall meeting in Mesquite to explain actions the 2015 Legislature took regarding education in a state that traditionally ranks at the bottom in the nation. The lawmakers passed one of the largest business tax increases in Nevada’s history at the behest of Governor Sandoval (R).

“I did not vote in favor of the tax increase,” Edwards said in the MLN one-on-one interview. “I voted against it in the Ways and Means Committee. I voted against amending AB464 on the Assembly Floor that created the tax plan. I did vote to move the amended Bill to be voted on only so it would get to the floor for a full vote. I voted against it once it got to the full vote.”

He went on to explain at the town hall that the Legislature “did great things in education” after the tax package was approved.

Among other programs, Edwards added that “We put $10 million into making pre-kindergarten available and $174 million to provide universal full-day kindergarten available state-wide. We allocated $27 million for the “Read-By-Three” program to ensure students are reading at grade level by the end of third grade. We provided $306 million to expand the number of teachers in grades 1 through 3 to increase the number of students that can read at grade level by the third grade.”

“One of the things I heard on the campaign trail is that voters were tired of people in government not doing their jobs yet they weren’t punished. I campaigned on increasing accountability. That’s one thing the Governor did a lot more of this time around to make sure the money we are earmarking is going where it’s supposed to go,” he explained.

Even though in the past the State government designated how it wanted school districts to use money they received, no mechanisms were established to ensure the funds went to those designated purposes. “State funds were co-mingled with local money and all control was lost,” Edwards remarked. “This time however we earmarked the money for specific programs that have to be done. Almost every program now requires independent accounting and monitoring by an outside source. That’s never been done before. It’s another way to ensure accountability by the schools.”

Edwards discussed the legislative measure that allows the Clark County School District to investigate the possibility of breaking the fifth largest district in the nation into at least five smaller ones. “With 320,000 students in Clark County, it’s extremely hard to manage. The 40 percent dropout rate Clark County’s schools have says it’s not working the way it’s structured now.”

In summing up the 2015 Legislature’s work to improve Nevada’s national educational ranking, Edwards said “The Governor put forth a lot of initiatives as well as legislators. We are trying to fix as many of the problems as we can by identifying them, properly putting resources into them and trying to get our school system off the bottom of the rankings.”

“It’s just one more piece of the pie to solve our education problems,” Edwards remarked when he explained the Educational Savings Account (ESA) program passed in the 2015 session that allows parents to receive funding from the State which can be used to enroll students in private or parochial schools.

“The ESA program is a huge change for which we’re still refining the rules and regulations. It can also help to serve as a safety valve to take some of the overcrowding population off the public schools.”

The State will place up to 90 percent of public funding per pupil into an ESA that’s controlled by parents. In dollar terms that’s $5,100 per student each school year paid quarterly. Disabled students will receive $5,700. Parents then decide where to enroll their children.

“Charter schools are part of the public school system; they just operate differently,” Edwards explained. He also recognized that under the ESA program it will be difficult for parents in rural areas like Mesquite to find alternate school choices. “If this proves to be as successful as we think it will be, rural communities will have an opportunity to invite for-profit school businesses into the area to create more choices.”

When he was challenged on the legality of using state funds at religiously-affiliated schools, he denied the ESA violates the State Constitution’s prohibition of using public money for religious purposes. “State money is not going to religious institutions. The State money is going to an Education Savings Account. The ESA is not controlled by the State; it is controlled by the parent. That’s a big distinction. Some may say the end result is the same. But there is a process through which it changes the legal aspects of it. The State is not giving the money directly to parochial schools, the parents are.”

In returning to his re-election campaign platform, Edwards told the MLN that he wants to see the ESA program become permanent and to continue the possibility of deconstructing the Clark County School District. He also wants to continue improvements in the Opportunity Scholarship program.

“I want to create an Inspector General position for the State government that will have a recognized office to ensure our primary sources of spending – healthcare and education – are working properly and the monies are spent correctly,” he said.

“I also want to see more categorical funding throughout State government with better accounting measures that will give lawmakers the information we need to make good decisions rather than just spending money,” Edwards remarked.

In addition to Veterans program improvements he helped make in the 2015 Legislature, he said “there is still more to do for our veterans. Our suicide rates are too high and we need more attention and resources in these areas.” To that end, he is working on the Interim Finance Committee, Veterans Services Commission and the Veterans Advisory Committee for Southern Nevada in the Legislation’s off-season.

For more information on Assemblyman Edwards’ Veterans work see ‘Nevada Veterans Legislation passed in the 2015 Session’ guest column in the MLN Sep. 24 issue.