A legal challenge to a school choice program in Nevada that would give parents an allowance for educational expenditures through a government-funded account has been upheld after a contentious dispute — and now the issue may take months or years to resolve through appeals.
Nevada Lt. Governor Mark Hutchison (R) sued the State of Nevada and State Treasurer Dan Schwartz (R) over the controversial Education Savings Account (ESA) program. But Attorney General Adam Laxalt filed a motion to dismiss on Thursday stating that Hutchison's suit is not only a conflict of interest, but also frivolous.
The Reno Gazette-Journal's Seth A. Richardson reports that Hutchison, himself an attorney, filed the suit to speed up the ESA process, but Laxalt asked Hutchison to withdraw the lawsuit. The state attorney general explained in his motion that two cases had already been argued, and Hutchison's suit would only hinder those cases' progress.
The ESA has been challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union and, in another suit, by a group of Nevada parents who object to the program based on the fact that it diverts public funds to private institutions. They add that the voucher system also uses public money for religiously-affiliated schools.
The program would give interested parents their child's per-pupil allowance, up to $5,100 a year in Nevada, to assist them in paying for the cost of private school tuition or other education-related expenditures such as tutoring. A majority of Nevada private schools are operated by religious entities, writes Geoff Dornan for the Nevada Appeal.
The ACLU's lawsuit was awaiting a Clark County judge's ruling on whether or not to dismiss. The other lawsuit already had a motion to dismiss which was denied by Carson District Judge James Wilson. He will be reviewing a petition brought by a group of parents to block any voucher checks until the issue is resolved.
Schwartz went as far as to say that if the lieutenant governor did not drop the lawsuit, he would suggest that Hutchison resign. He added that he felt that his fellow Republican was using the children of Nevada as "political pawns to further his career," reports Scott Lucas for The Las Vegas Sun.
But on Monday, Carson City District Judge James Wilson said the state constitution requires "the legislature to set apart or assign money to be used to fund the operation of the public schools, to the exclusion of all other purposes." He stated that the plaintiffs have clearly proven there are no circumstances that would make the statute valid.
"We are thrilled with the ruling," said Tammy Godley, an attorney who argued on behalf of six parents challenging the program. "We think it is so important to the children of Nevada that we maintain our public schools and fund them appropriately. "SB302 was a real threat to that," she said.
An appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court is expected, and Judge Wilson added that a trial to review the merits of the case will be scheduled, writes the Las Vegas Review-Journal's Sandra Chereb.
The ESA, administered by the state treasurer's office, would place the state funding in an education savings account created by parents who could then use it for transportation, tuition, or other educational expenses.
Governor Sandoval said he believes the chronically-underperforming Nevada school system is in need of more resources for public schools "as well as robust options for school choice." Now the decision will be left to the state Supreme Court.
Schwartz said he was disappointed by the news and that parents across the state were devastated. But Godley pointed out that Clark County schools would have taken a $17.5 million budget hit that would grow as more parents opted into the programs and more students attained eligibility.
The Associated Press' Michelle Rindels says many parents had already moved their children out of homeschooling or private schools so they could meet the 100-day program requirement children must meet before being eligible for the funds.
But Godley was encouraged that the program had been shut down before money was distributed to families, since getting funds back to the state would be difficult if the ESAs were rescinded at a later date. She was also encouraged that the judge found the arguments against the ESAs compelling enough to shut down the program at this time.