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Nevada high court OKs education voucher program

Taxpayer-funded education savings accounts are constitutional but lawmakers must find new funding source

Protesters for and against a sweeping Nevada school choice program gather outside the Nevada Supreme Court in Las Vegas. Associated Press/Photo by Ken Ritter, File

Nevada high court OKs education voucher program

The Nevada Supreme Court suspended implementation of the state’s extensive school choice program last week but left room for a future resurgence.

The Nevada program establishes separate funding accounts for parents to use for alternative forms of education—including private religious schools and homeschooling. The justices ruled that idea passed constitutional muster but found fault with the program’s funding source. The ruling allows Nevada lawmakers to re-work the legislation and sets a precedent for other states to pursue similar initiatives.

Last year, GOP lawmakers introduced the broad voucher program—regarded as the most extensive school choice program in the country—and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, quickly signed it into law. The legislation allows for any family to receive government aid for whatever education route parents deem best. Under the program, each family could access $5,100 per year, per child for tuition at private schools and to cover homeschooling expenses.

The law passed through Nevada’s general assembly on a party-line vote and immediately generated pushback. Democrats, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Educate Nevada Now, and others said a law that uses taxpayer money to pay for children to attend religious schools is unconstitutional.

But in a 33-page opinion, Nevada’s Supreme Court refuted that claim. In its 4-2 decision, the court said once the public funds go into an education savings account, the funds are no longer public. Instead, they are private funds for the individual parent who established the account. How parents spend that money is up to them and therefore does not conflict with the state’s requirement to only commit public funds for secular purposes, even if parents choose to use the money for religious education.

The court also ruled the voucher program does not conflict with the state’s constitutional duty to provide for a general and uniform system of common schools because the program is available to everyone.

But parents can’t start using their vouchers yet because the court said Nevada cannot divert money meant exclusively for public education into the new education savings accounts.

“Going forward, Nevada’s lawmakers would be wise to abandon their efforts to fund private education and focus on strengthening public schools,” Heather L. Weaver, an ACLU attorney, said after the court decision.

But immediately after the ruling, Sandoval began to contemplate how to get the program off the ground.

“[T]here may be a path for a legislative solution,” the governor said in a statement Thursday. “However, such a solution is complex and must be well thought-out to meet constitutional muster.”

Sandoval initially said he would begin to review options in the next legislative session in February. But the next day, The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported the governor might bring it up as early as next week, during a special legislative session called to finance a new football stadium.

About 8,000 families have signed up for the voucher program but have been stuck in limbo for more than nine months awaiting a court decision.

While Nevada lawmakers figure out their next steps, Leslie Hiner, vice president of programs for EdChoice, told the Review-Journal Americans should expect to see similar programs begin to form in other states.

“Nevada really has inspired people in a serious way,” she said. “I’ve received text messages all afternoon from folks all across the country who were just excited about the ruling.”

EdChoice President Robert Enlow said he hopes Nevada legislators find a way to implement the program, but declared the ruling upholding the constitutionality of school choice is a major victory.

“This is a big win for thousands of Nevada families who are clamoring for schooling options to make sure their kids have an opportunity to succeed in life,” he said. “This landmark ruling affirms the legality of the program and denies challenges based on the type of schooling families might choose for their students.”

Evan Wilt Evan is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD reporter.


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