Tag: Nevada

Carpe Diem: Fix the Nevada ESA Funding Issue

In 2015, Nevada lawmakers passed the most ambitious educational choice law in the nation: a nearly universal education savings account (ESA) program. The program was scheduled to launch this year, but it immediately drew two separate lawsuits from opponents of educational choice. Last week, the Supreme Court of Nevada upheld the constitutionality of the ESAs, but ruled that the program was improperly funded. Choice opponents were quick to declare that the ESA program is dead, but as Tim Keller of the Institute for Justice noted, the program is only mostly dead, which means it is slightly alive.

Whether the program is fully revived depends entirely on the lawmakers who won plaudits for enacting it in the first place. On Monday, the legislature will meet in a special session to consider whether to subsidize the construction of a football stadium for the Raiders. Fixing the ESA funding would be a much more productive and beneficial use of their time. Sadly, Governor Brian Sandoval announced this week that ESAs would not be on the agenda:

Passage of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) set a national precedent for school choice and symbolized a significant step toward education equality for every student. I recognize the magnitude of this sweeping policy measure and consider it a major component of the reform package ushered in during the last legislative session. Protecting this program is a top priority for me. There is simply not enough time to add it to next week’s Special Session with full confidence that a rushed outcome will pass constitutional muster.

Nevada Supreme Court: Education Savings Accounts Are Constitutional, Funding Mechanism Isn’t

In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court of Nevada today upheld the constitutionality of the nation’s most expansive educational choice law. However, the court ruled that the funding mechanism the legislature adopted is unconstitutional. If the legislature creates a new funding mechanism–as it could and should in a special session–then the ESA program could be implemented right away.

Enacted in 2015, Nevada’s education savings account (ESA) policy was originally scheduled to launch at the beginning of this year, but it immediately drew two separate legal challenges from the government schooling establishment and the ACLU and its allies. Nevada’s ESA provides students with $5,100 per year (plus an additional $600 for low-income students or students with special needs) to use for a wide variety of approved educational expenditures, including private school tuition, tutoring, text books, online courses, homeschool curricula, and more. Families can also roll over unspent funds from year to year. As the Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke and I have explained, the ability to customize a child’s education and save funds for later are significant improvements over school vouchers:

ESAs offer several key advantages over traditional school-choice programs. Because families can spend ESA funds at multiple providers and can save unspent funds for later, ESAs incentivize families to economize and maximize the value of each dollar spent, in a manner similar to the way they would spend their own money. ESAs also create incentives for education providers to unbundle services and products to better meet students’ individual learning needs. 

Of the five existing ESA programs, Nevada’s is the most expansive. Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee restrict their ESAs to students with special needs. Arizona originally restricted ESA eligibility to students with special needs, but has since included foster children, children of active-duty military personnel, students assigned to district schools rated D or F, and children living in Native American reservations. In Nevada, all students who attended a public school for at least 100 days in the previous academic year are eligible. 

In two separate lawsuits, opponents of educational choice alleged that Nevada’s ESA violated the state constitution’s mandate that the state provide a “uniform system of common schools” (Article 11, Section 2), its prohibition against using public funds for sectarian purposes (Article 11, Section 6), and a clause requiring the state to appropriate funds to operate the district schools before any other appropriation is enacted for the biennium (Article 11, Section 10). The court found that the ESA was constitutional under the first two constitutional provisions, but the way it was funded violated the third.

School Choice Lawsuits Update: Summer 2016 Edition

As school choice wins in the court of public opinion, opponents have resorted to fighting it in the courts of law. Here are a few brief updates regarding pending lawsuits against school choice programs around the country.

Colorado: Douglas County’s School Choice Grant Program

Last summer, the Colorado Supreme Court struck down Douglas County’s school voucher program with a plurality ruling that the law violates the state’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which forbids public money from being used at religious schools. District officials responded to the ruling by creating a new voucher program that excludes religious schools, which drew lawsuits from both opponents and supporters of school choice.

The Institute for Justice, which had previously defended the school voucher program, sued the county for unconstitutionally discriminating against religious groups. According to IJ, the “exclusion of religious options from the program violates the Free Exercise, Establishment, Equal Protection, and Free Speech Clauses of the United States Constitution, as well as the Due Process Clause, which guarantees the fundamental right of parents to control and direct the education and upbringing of their children.” IJ contends–correctly, in my view–that the First Amendment requires the government to be neutral both among religions and between religion and non-religion, but it may not actively favor nor discriminate against either religious or non-religious groups or institutions. This case is still pending.

In a separate lawsuit, opponents of school choice contended that the new voucher program was not materially different than the old one. Earlier this month, a district court agreed, striking down the program yet again. Although by excluding religious schools, the new program appears to be in compliance with the Colorado Supreme Court’s ruling, the district court explained that the state supreme court did not rule on the merits of several other alleged violations of state constitutional provisions under which the district court had previously invalidated the program. This case is likely going to return to the state supreme court for resolution.

Florida: Tax-Credit Scholarships

There are currently two lawsuits pending against Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program. As RedefinED reports, a judge recently denied an attempt to fast-track one of the two suits, which primarily concerns the adequacy of the state’s funding of district schools. A judge dismissed the portion of the suit related to the tax-credit program but plaintiffs filed an appeal and asked for the case to skip the appellate court and go straight to the state supreme court. That request has been denied, so the case will go before the appellate court first. That means the program is likely to serve more than 100,000 students by the time it comes before the state supreme court.

Nevada Supreme Court Hears Education Savings Accounts Lawsuits

Today, on Milton Friedman Legacy Day, the Nevada Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in two lawsuits against the state’s education savings account (ESA) law. Under the law, students who leave their assigned district school can receive a portion of the funds that would have been allocated to them in their district school (about $5,100 to $5,700 depending on family income). The parents can use those funds to customize their child’s education by purchasing a wide variety of educational good and services, including private school tuition, text books, online courses, homeschool curricula, and more. They can even save funds for future expenditures. A similar program in Arizona has proved highly popular among parents.

However, a group dedicated to protecting the district school monopoly is asking the state supreme court to strike down the program before it goes into effect:

“I fear that, because this is the most aggressive model for this program, the privatization of education … will spread like wildfire,” said Electra McGrath-Skrzydlewski, whose 12-year-old daughter is a student in the Clark County School District.

McGrath-Skrzydlewski joined several parents last October to sue the state in a Carson City court, challenging SB302 on the grounds that it diverts money meant “exclusively” for public schools to private schools and other private expenses. Their complaint also claims the bill violates a constitutional requirement that lawmakers create a “uniform” system of public schools.

As Neal McCluskey noted on Twitter, even the opponents of the ESA assume that parents want it. And they’re right: more than 8,000 eager families have already applied.

David Boaz on educational choice

In separate case, the ACLU claims that the ESA law violates the state constitition’s “uniformity” clause as well as a separate constitutional provision prohibiting the state funding of religious instititions. However, as I’ve discussed previously, these arguments do not hold water. The ACLU wants the court to interpret the constitutional mandate that the state create a system of “uniform” and nonsectarian schools to mean that it must exclusively fund those schools. Fortunately, the lower court rejected this strained interpretation, holding instead that “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.”

Likewise, the lower court rejected the ACLU’s Blaine Amendment claim, holding that it “was not intended to preclude any expenditure that has an incidental benefit to religion, where such is made for a primary secular purpose,” and that the ESA “was enacted for the valid secular purpose of providing financial assistance to parents to take advantage of educational options available to Nevada children.”

For more information on the two cases and to watch live feed of the oral arguments beginning at 1:00pm EDT, go to Choice Media’s website.

Nevada Judge: Education Savings Accounts Are Constitutional

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. 

Will Nevada’s Education Savings Account Benefit the Poor?

Perhaps the most interesting development in education policy this year has been Nevada’s adoption of the first education savings account program to offer nearly universal eligibility. Students who attended a charter or district school in the previous year are eligible to have a portion of the state funds that would have been spent on them instead deposited into an account that they can use to purchase a wide variety of educational goods and services. By empowering families with more alternatives to the generally low-performing district schools, the ESA program is also a pressure relief valve for Nevada’s severely overcrowded schools.

However, although low-income families have the most to gain from the ESAs, it appears that higher-income families have been the first to apply for the accounts. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reports:

Overall, half of the nearly 3,100 applications submitted as of Oct. 28 list an address in a ZIP Code among the top 40 percent of median households in Nevada. That’s in contrast to just 10.7 percent of applications from households with median incomes in the bottom 40 percent.

It’s important to note that these are not the final ESA enrollment figures. As Matthew Ladner of the Foundation for Excellence in Education pointed out, these are merely the “earliest of the early adopters.” At the time of the Review-Journal report, Nevada families still had more than two months to apply for an ESA before the program commenced. Nevertheless, opponents of parental choice have seized on the development:

“It’s what we expected,” said Sylvia Lazos, policy director for the education reform group Educate Nevada Now [which is suing to end the ESA program].

The ESA program “was not tailored to low-income parents. It was not tailored to parents with children in (low-performing) schools,” she said. “With every program of this nature, it’s just the reality that affluent and high middle-income families are always in the best position to take advantage of government programs.”

Yet nowhere is this more true than in the government schools. Because the government assigns students to district schools based on the location of the home their parents can afford, wealthier families have access to district schools that are safer and higher quality than those to which low-income students are assigned. It’s not resources that account for the difference in performance – Washington, D.C. spends nearly $30,000 per pupil for one of the worst school districts in the nation. Culture certainly plays an important role, but so does the ability to exit.

The Year of Educational Choice: Update V

This is the sixth post in a series covering the advance of educational choice legislation across the country this year. As of my last update in early July, there were 18 new or expanded choice programs in 14 states. A few days after that update, Wisconsin enacted a new voucher program for students with special needs. And on Friday, North Carolina lawmakers finally passed a long-overdue budget that expanded the state’s two school voucher programs for low-income and special-needs students, bringing the total number to 21 new or expanded programs in 15 states. The updated tally is below.

A lawsuit against the Tar Heel State’s voucher law impeded implementation so only 1,216 low-income students participated last year, barely 10 percent of the 12,000+ applications the state received. In July, the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld the program, clearing the way for the legislature to expand it. 

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