Dismissing a challenge from the ACLU, yesterday Las Vegas District Court Judge Eric Johnson ruled that Nevada’s education savings account (ESA) program is constitutional. However, the ESA program is still on hold due to a second lawsuit against the ESA program in which the judge issued an injunction against issuing the accounts. That case is currently pending before the Nevada Supreme Court, and it is possible that the two legal challenges will be merged.
The ACLU challenged the ESA law on two grounds, claiming that the ESA violated the Nevada Constitution’s “uniformity” clause and the state’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment. Siding with the state of Nevada and the Institute for Justice, the court rejected these claims.
“Uniform” Does Not Mean “Exclusive”
Nevada’s state constitution requires that the legislature “shall provide for a uniform system of common schools.” These schools must “be established and maintained in each school district at least six months in every year” and it is forbidden for these schools to “allow instruction of a sectarian character therein.” In a separate clause, the state constitution enjoins the legislature to “encourage” education “by all suitable means.”
The ACLU argued the “suitable means” mentioned in Article XI, Section 1 are defined by uniformity clause in Section 2. The ACLU cited the infamous Bush v. Holmes decision in Florida, in which Florida’s state supreme court struck down the state’s voucher program by interpreting the state’s duty to create a “uniform” system of public schools to mean that the state had a duty to provide a system of schooling exclusively according to the means described in the state constitution, despite the state constitution empowering the legislation to create “other public education programs that the needs of the people may require.” (The Florida Education Association is now suing to halt the state’s tax-credit scholarship program on the same grounds.)
However, the judge rejected this interpretation, holding instead that that in these two clauses, “the framers indicated that they intended to create two duties, a broad one to encourage education by ‘all suitable means,’ and a specific, but separate, one to create a uniform public school system.” The judge noted that the framers’ “use of two different sections to set out the Legislature’s responsibilities without reference in either section to the other plainly suggests the sections are separate and distinct.” By contrast, adopting the ACLU’s clever but strained interpretation would, according to the judge, “make section 1 superfluous, without any meaning or purpose.”
In other words, the Nevada constitution requires the state to establish a non-sectarian system of public schools, but it is also empowered to encourage education by other means that are not limited to non-sectarian schooling.