by Félix Pérez
Nevada’s universal school voucher program — widely hailed by school privatization proponents when it was signed into law in June — violates the state constitution because it diverts taxpayer money to private, religious schools, charges a lawsuit filed last month by three civil liberties organizations.
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“If allowed to proceed, Nevada’s Education Savings Accounts Program will unconstitutionally divert millions of dollars in public education funds to private schools — the majority of which are religious. . . While parents have a right to send their children to religious schools, the Nevada Constitution prohibits them from doing so at taxpayers’ expense,” states the legal challenge brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The suit was brought on behalf of five Nevada residents, including Adam Berger, a father of a student in a public school and a special education teacher.
The lawsuit argues that the funding scheme violates Article XI, Section 10, of the Nevada Constitution, which states that “no public funds of any kind or character whatever, State, County, or Municipal, shall be used for sectarian purpose.” The lawsuit also claims that the program runs afoul of Article XI, Section 2, which requires the legislature to provide for a uniform system of common schools.
The Nevada State Education Association, which represents 24,000 education professionals, is concerned the voucher law, if implemented, will have devastating consequences for students, taking money from innovative public school programs. NSEA is consulting with its attorneys to determine a course of action.
Ruben Murillo, a special education teacher and president of the Nevada State Education Association, said:
What’s really outrageous about this program is that it threatens to siphon funds from programs we know will help students. It virtually guarantees poor students and students with special needs get left behind.
Sylvia Lazos, policy director of Educate Nevada Now, wrote, “ESAs are highly problematic because of impacts on an already debilitated public education system. If parents of the 20,000 children currently in private schools take advantage of ESAs, the result will be a decrease of at least $100 million to public school budgets. This will undermine the ability of public schools to operate effectively for all students and will wreak havoc on school district budgeting and planning.”
Lily Eskelsen García, a Utah elementary school teacher and president of the National Education Association, said of the voucher program when it was enacted: “I am terrified that there are more and more state legislators and state governors who have bought into this very dangerous idea that school is a commodity.”
Eskelsen García said the student choice touted by supporters of the Nevada law is illusory. Unlike public schools, private schools are not obligated to accept students with special needs or from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Noted Eskelsen García:
It’s not profitable for very good private schools to allow in children who are disabled, kids who don’t speak English, kids whose parents are struggling to put food on the table.
Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval and GOP state legislators, who passed the law without a single Democratic vote, maintain that the voucher program does not violate the constitution because the money is provided to parents, not religious schools. The lawsuit argues that the private religious schools eligible to participate in the voucher program “operate with sectarian missions and goals and impart sectarian curricula. This is exactly what the Nevada Constitution forbids.” Additionally, many of these schools, argue the civil liberties organizations, “discriminate in employment and admissions on the basis of religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity, among other grounds.”
Under the far-reaching “vouchers on steroids” program, parents of students enrolled in a public school for at least 100 days may transfer their children to participating private and religious schools. They are eligible to receive $5,100 to $5,700, depending on family income, to pay for tuition, textbooks, transportation, technology, online schooling, home schooling an related expenses. The state has already accepted 3,000 early applications for program funds.
Most states with voucher programs limit participation to students with disabilities or from low-income families. Nevada’s law, by contrast, is unprecedented because all of the state’s 450,000 K-12 public schoolchildren are eligible to take the money to whatever private school they choose. The law also does not limit how much public school funding may be siphoned for private and religious schools.