Monday, August 31, 2015

ACLU Challenges Nevada's School Voucher Program; Is The State's Poor Funding of Public Schools Relevant?

The ACLU along with the Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit last week challenging the state's voucher program that will send public dollars to private, religious schools.  This, they say, violates the state constitution's proscriptions on the expenditure of public dollars.  “Parents have a right to send their children to religious schools, but they are not entitled to do so at taxpayers’ expense. The voucher program violates the Nevada Constitution’s robust protections against the use of public funds for religious education,” said Tod Story, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada. “This program allows public money to be spent at intuitions which operate with sectarian missions and goals and impart sectarian curricula. This is exactly what the Nevada Constitution forbids.”  The press release offers this further summary:

Under the program, parents of students enrolled in public school for at least 100 days may transfer their children to participating private schools, including religious schools, and are eligible to receive thousands of dollars in public education funds to pay for tuition, textbooks, and other associated costs.  The funds will be disbursed through so-called “Education Savings Accounts,” and there are no restrictions on how participating schools can use the money.

The lawsuit argues that the funding scheme violates Article XI Section 10 of the Nevada Constitution, which prohibits the use of public funds for any 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.

. . .

Gregory M. Lipper, senior litigation counsel for Americans United, added, “Nevada’s Constitution makes clear that the state may not fund religious instruction or religious discrimination. The voucher program flouts this constitutional prohibition. Nevada’s parents, students, and taxpayers deserve better.”

Some may recall that a similar challenge to North Carolina's voucher program failed recently, but because the challenges are based on the state constitution, not the U.S. Constitution's 1st Amendment, North Carolina's decision will have no direct effect.  

What should loom large, however, is the fact that Nevada is also currently facing school funding challenges.  As shown in these reports by the Education Law Center, Nevada's support of public schools is absolutely abysmal.  The amount of effort that Nevada exerts to raise funds for public schools (measured as a function of how much wealth the state possesses) is among the very worst in the nation.  What little the state raises, it then distributes very unequally among districts, ranking as the nation's worst on this measure.  In 2012, districts with less than 10% poverty spent an average of $13,632 per pupil, those with less than 20 percent poverty spent $10,668, those with less than 30% spent $8,349, and those with 30% poverty or more spent only $6,534.  That spending level in high poverty districts represents only 48% of what is spent in the lowest poverty districts.

That the state would see fit to direct more money to vouchers during a time in which it is funding its public schools so poorly is obscene.  As I have written of the Ohio voucher program that went to the Supreme Court in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, voucher programs under these circumstances are sad excuses for remedies to the constitutional violations occurring in regular public schools and cynical attempts to "buy-off" a percentage of families in struggling school districts, who might otherwise be the pushing the hardest for reform in their public schools.

See here for the complaint.

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