Politicians Force Closure of Oldest Catholic School in Las Vegas

COMMENTARY: Parents nationwide should be vigilant — what happens in Las Vegas Catholic schools may happen to a school near you.

Governor Joe Lombardo at St. Anne’s Catholic School on August 4, 2023.
Governor Joe Lombardo at St. Anne’s Catholic School on August 4, 2023. (photo: Courtesy photo / Valeria Gurr)

It’s an all-too-familiar story: Families who need the most support cannot pay for private education. Most minority families just cannot afford it on top of their property taxes, which fund the local district schools — the schools that often leave their children behind. 

St. Anne’s Catholic School, situated in an East Las Vegas neighborhood among lower-income families who need options the most, is the latest example, and the result is tragic.

St. Anne’s has announced its closure, leaving families devastated. Just a year ago, I joined many others in calling on elected officials to put aside politics and keep Nevada students first. If they had prioritized students by preserving funding for Opportunity Scholarships, we wouldn't be losing a school that has long been an asset to our community, especially for minority students.

About five years ago — in 2019 — this school was thriving. However, that very same year, Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat with support from the teachers union and a well-known school choice adversary, took office, and threatened to end the Opportunity Scholarship program.

That same year, the Superintendent of Catholic Schools and all the Catholic school principals hosted a roundtable discussion with hundreds of families. State Sen. Moises Denis, D-Las Vegas, who was the chairman of the Nevada Senate Committee on Education at the time, was also invited.

During this roundtable, parents shared how the school was helping their students escape unsafe environments and low-performing public schools. They shared how Catholic education was helping their students thrive and how thankful they were to have access to Opportunity Scholarships. Families who worked long hours said that the school provided an important support system for their children. Academics were important, but that wasn’t the only critical factor. They also cared tremendously about the culture of the school.

Yet, despite how well these students were succeeding, opponents in all three branches of the government, Democrats all, decided to limit the program. Despite all the efforts from parents to show legislators the importance of this life-changing program, more than 1,000 students lost their scholarships in 2019.

The program has never been able to fully recover, causing other schools to close. First, St. Christopher Catholic School in North Las Vegas closed, and now St. Anne. Others have lost their buildings and had to relocate.

There was hope last year when Gov. Joe Lombardo, a Republican, proposed a school choice option that would have helped 5,000 students. He visited St. Anne to speak at a school choice rally after the leadership in the Nevada Legislature refused to pass his proposal. The program was slashed after Democrats refused to work with him to make it a truly bipartisan issue. During this appearance, the governor asked Democratic leadership to allocate COVID relief funding to prevent students in the program from losing scholarships, but they also refused. 

Nevada should take a page out of Florida’s book. There, leaders in both parties voted for expanding choice to every family in the state. Catholic school enrollment is up 9% in Florida, thanks to strong outreach to families and school choice that opens the chance to families who need it most. Catholic schools there are becoming more diverse, embracing students of color and special-needs students, and they’re implementing innovative academic offerings.

Education should not be a partisan issue, but the teachers’ unions have made it partisan in Nevada, even though public school results in this state continue to be unacceptable. In Clark County, which encompasses Las Vegas, students are not proficient in math or reading at any grade level, and chronic absenteeism is a real issue at 38%.

I personally know that there is support among Democrats, yet they stay quiet, even when they understand the challenges that low-income families and communities of color face and the strong support for school choice.

Assemblyman Steve Yeager, D-Las Vegas, called the Opportunity Scholarship “handouts for wealthy students to go to unaccountable private schools.” St. Anne’s story is just one that proves otherwise. The East Las Vegas neighborhood where St. Anne’s is located has an average per-capita income lower than 98.4% of the neighborhoods in the United States. Most people who live in this area are low-income Hispanics who work in labor jobs. They chose St. Anne’s because it provided their children a safe haven in the high-crime neighborhood, and offered an education they trusted. Now, that option is gone.

Politics were put first, and students were put last. Parents deserve better, and if recent experience is any guide, they are eager to make their voices heard.