ACLU Challenges Nevada’s Education Savings Account Program


The nation's broadest school choice initiative, Nevada's Education Savings Account program, has met with its first legal as three civil liberties groups challenged its state constitutionality because it releases public funds to religious schools, writes Michelle Rindels for Associated Press.

The three entities involved in the lawsuit are the Nevada affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, the national American Civil Liberties Union, and the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, all of which filed in Nevada District Court in Clark County.

The organizations are asking the courts to stop the new Education Savings Account program, which gives parents the right to claim almost all their child's per-pupil state education funds and use it toward private schooling or other qualifying education expenses.

"Parents have a right to send their children to religious schools, but they are not entitled to do so at taxpayers' expense," ACLU of Nevada Executive Director Tod Story said in a statement. "The voucher program violates the Nevada Constitution's robust protections against the use of public funds for religious education."

While the ACLU "certainly has the right to air their issues in court," said Nevada State Treasurer Dan Schwartz, whose office is administering the program, the state believes the new law is obviously targeted at "aiding and approving" the children of Nevada's education whether they be enrolled in public or private schools. He added that the courts would make the decision most consistent with the law's purpose and the state's constitution.

The ACLU's opposition is based on a portion of the state's constitution that was added in 1887 that disallowed public funding for any sectarian purposes. There are 37 other states with similar provisions.

The state says the new program circumvents the provision by letting the parents decide where the money goes.

"The constitution constrains government action," said attorney Tim Keller of the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based libertarian group that defends school choice measures and wants to work on the Nevada case. "Here, it's not the government making the decision, it's the parent."

A similar funding system was recently challenged successfully in Colorado.

"Instead of empowering parents to help their children find an education environment that meets their needs, the ACLU wants to go back to a system of hard zoning, forcing poor and minority students into chronically failing schools and furthering cycles of generational poverty," Assistant Senate Majority Leader Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, said in a statement.

Neal Morton of the Las Vegas Review-Journal explains that the Education Savings Account (ESAs) allow approximately $5,000 per student in funding that would follow a student who leaves a public school for a private or parochial school the family has chosen for their child to attend. The money can also be used for homeschooling, tutoring, and other education services.

KRNV-TV Reno says the suit argues that many of these private schools require religious instruction, prayer, and worship, which goes against the constitutional requirement that the legislature provide a "uniform system of common schools." Another violation of the constitution, says the ACLU, is by "providing funding to a non-uniform and competing system of private schools whose curricula, instruction, and educational standards diverge dramatically from school to school." 

But Schwartz and other supporters of the program believe it is all about choice. When 60% to 70% of of Nevada's students need remedial work when they get to college, something has to change, argued Karyn Osgood-Johnson, Director of Brookfield School in Reno.

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