The hotly-debated program is seen as the broadest school choice initiative in the country, allowing parents to access $5,000 in public funds each year
The Nevada supreme court has ruled that the states voucher-style education savings accounts program seen as the broadest school choice initiative in the country has an unconstitutional funding mechanism that should remain blocked.
Justices issued a 4-2 ruling on Thursday against the money source for the program, which has been on hold since the winter and never disbursed funds to families as it intended, but upholding some of its key underpinnings.
Parties on both sides of the hotly debated issue claimed victory from the 35-page decision.
Taxpayer money isnt to be used to support the private education of a handful of kids, said Rory Reid, son of Democratic senator Harry Reid and president of the Rogers Foundation, which supported legal challenges against the program. Were proud to stand up for that proposition.
But proponents framed the ruling as a victory, saying it agreed with some of their most fundamental arguments and adding that the programs defects can be fixed by the legislature.
After todays ruling, there is only one step left to take in order to make the vision of educational choice a reality for thousands of Nevada families, said attorney general Adam Laxalt, a Republican who enlisted a star lawyer to help him defend the program. Fortunately, the supreme court has made crystal clear that ESAs are constitutional and that the legislature can fix this funding technicality and allow for the implementation of ESAs statewide.
Lawmakers passed a Republican-backed bill on a party-line vote last year to create the program. It would allow parents to access more than $5,000 in funds allocated each year for their childs public schooling and apply it toward private school tuition or other qualified education expenses.
The ruling says the program authorized last spring by the Nevada legislature did not have its own dedicated funding source and is contradicting the Nevada constitution by drawing on money allocated for public schools in the states distributive school account.
Republican senator Scott Hammond, who sponsored the original bill, said he was disappointed that the block would remain but assured this will only delay and not deny families from using the program.
Justices affirmed some central arguments from the proponents. They agreed that public money transferred to accounts for parents discretion are no longer public funds that cant be used for sectarian purposes, such as religious schools.
One of the two lawsuits against the program argued primarily on the grounds of separation of church and state, saying the program would unconstitutionally divert money to religious schools that proselytize or can discriminate against students or staff.
Justices also affirmed that the legislature can use its power to encourage other methods of education, and that the education savings account program doesnt violate the legislatures duty to provide for a uniform system of common schools.
Republican assembly majority leader Paul Anderson, whos leading the effort to keep his party in control of the assembly during an election cycle more favorable to Democrats, said his candidates will use the issue to motivate voters. Democrats have fought hard against the program on the grounds that it undermines an already strained public school system, but Republican control could more easily usher in a fix that could revive the program.
Its disappointing that more legislators dont believe in school choice. It should not be a Republican-only issue, Anderson said. But the funding problem is much easier to overcome than had they ruled differently on the other points.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, which sued against the program, promised to fight any effort to enact a new voucher program.