Nevada LegislatureSocial Justice

Who’s Vouching for What? The Jury’s Out on ESA Vouchers.

In June 2015 Governor Brian Sandoval (R) signed SB 302 into law, establishing the ESA voucher program. Yet within weeks, the program was hit with a court ordered injunction. Since then, the voucher program has been in a legal coma.

As Governor Sandoval pushes to revive vouchers, opponents are reminding the Nevada Legislature why they sued in the first place. Today, we speak with those most deeply involved in Lopez v. Schwartz on why they sued and why they oppose Sandoval’s push to revive school vouchers.

Last week, we dug deep into the world of Mountain View Christian School in Las Vegas. The Nevada Legislature finally held its first hearing Monday night on SB 506, Governor Sandoval’s bill to revive the ESA voucher program. Today, we explore why Sandoval had to introduce SB 506 in the first place.

Why are there no active ESA vouchers now?

On September 9, 2015, a group of parents with children in public schools filed suit against the voucher program. In January 2016, the trial court agreed with the Lopez v. Schwartz parents and issued a preliminary injunction to halt ESA implementation. On September 29, 2016, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled the voucher program unconstitutional due to its diversion of public education funds for another purpose (in this case, subsidies for private schools).

I met up with Educate Nevada Now (ENN) Policy Director Sylvia Lazos to discuss the Lopez case and why she considers ESA vouchers a threat to public education. She described SB 302, the 2015 bill that established ESA vouchers, as “the most radical voucher program.” Why? “It would have taken public education dollars and redirected it to private vouchers. It would have wrecked public education.”

“This is the most important case in Nevada history: protecting public education.”
– Sylvia Lazos, ENN

I also spoke with NSEA’s Chris Daly and Nick di Arcangel on the sordid tale of vouchers in Nevada. For Daly, “The Constitution is pretty clear on education funding. We believe the Nevada Supreme Court got it right. The Legislature shall first pass the school budget that sufficiently funds public education.”

ENN Legal Director Amanda Morgan also spoke with us on the record. “Until we fund our schools appropriately, it’s irresponsible to consider giving public dollars to private schools. Vouchers claim to help students, but it only diverts scarce tax dollars to benefit a handful of parents (8,000) compared to the 460,000 children that will remain in public schools.”

“Vouchers are not the solution for all the 470,000 students in public schools. It’s the exact opposite.”
– Chris Daly, NSEA

ACLU of Nevada Policy Director Holly Welborn pointed out the students who could be left out under vouchers. “Nevada is the only voucher system in the nation that has no requirement that schools not discriminate.” When a private school says, “We reserve the right to refuse entry to anyone,” Welborn stated that private school can exclude a number of students. “Children with disabilities would be excluded. Gifted & talented students would be excluded. LGBTQ students would be excluded. These students would not really have school choice.”

ACLU filed its own suit challenging the legality of vouchers: Duncan v. Nevada. ACLU argued 2015’s SB 302 violated the Nevada Constitution’s explicit ban on state funding for parochial schools. The Nevada Supreme Court dismissed that case, though Welborn and Lazos said the Court did so without resolving the matter of vouchers providing state funds for private religious schools.

“Any school that accesses public funds in any way should be required to follow state and federal anti-discrimination law.”
– Holly Welborn, ACLU of Nevada

Welborn noted that neither 2015’s SB 302 nor 2017’s SB 506 guarantees equity for all students or accountability for private schools taking public funds. “There are no explicit non-discrimination provisions. There’s no real oversight of private schools that participate in the program.” SB 225 would have required private schools to participate in the same anti-bullying programs public schools now have, but the bill was amended to merely make participation optional for private schools.

Welborn expressed fear vouchers would result in a two-tiered system where affluent white students get state assistance to attend private schools, while poorer students of color are placed in underfunded public schools. And yet, the Nevada Legislature is again debating vouchers. ENN’s Sylvia Lazos had a simple message for legislators mulling Sandoval’s voucher request: “Don’t play politics with kids’ education.”

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