Premise of lawsuit challenging education savings account law is flawed

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This past week a second lawsuit was filed in state court challenging the constitutionality of a state law creating education savings accounts that would allow parents to use a portion of the state funding that would otherwise be used in public schools to be spent on private school tuition or homeschooling.

An earlier lawsuit filed by the ACLU challenges the law because the savings accounts could be used for sectarian schools and the state constitution prohibits using tax money for any religious purpose. The issue there is whether money once in the hands of parents is still tax money.

The latest suit, Lopez v. Schwartz, filed in the 1st Judicial District Court in Carson City by a group called Educate Nevada Now, claims the law reduces state funding for public schools to below the level determined to be sufficient. The suit repeatedly refers to the law, Senate Bill 302, as a voucher law, though the law never uses that word and mentions only savings accounts.

Sylvia Lazos, policy director for Educate Nevada Now, said in a press release, “This lawsuit does not challenge the right of parents to choose a private or religious school for their child. But it does seek to ensure that public school funding is not diverted and depleted by subsidizing that choice.”

The lawsuit argues, “The voucher statute further violates the Legislature’s constitutional obligation to establish and maintain a ‘uniform system of public schools. … The drafters of the Nevada Constitution understood the importance of establishing a ‘uniform system’ of ‘common’ or public schools sufficiently funded to prepare all Nevada children to become engaged, productive and contributing citizens; schools that all Nevadan children can attend regardless of beliefs, wealth or ability.”

Actually, the drafters of the state constitution were fairly lax about this “uniform system of public schools” wording, writing specifically, “The legislature shall provide for a uniform system of common schools, by which a school shall be established and maintained in each school district at least six months in every year …”

The lawsuit also huffs that the constitution “mandates that the Legislature maintain and support those schools by appropriating the funding it deems sufficient for their operation.”

Well, apparently the Legislature, since it passed SB302, deemed it sufficient for public schools to be funded with only 10 percent of the funding formula for students it does not have to teach.

The state currently distributes about $5,700 per public school pupil. The law allows the state Treasurer to set up savings accounts for parents who choose to take their children out of public schools. For most the annual account would be equal to 90 percent of the public school per-pupil state funding allotment or a little more than $5,000. Parents earning less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level would get 100 percent of state funding.

Unstated in all the falderal about sufficient funding is the fact public schools are not solely funded by the state. They also receive local and federal funding.

According to National Education Association figures published in May, Nevada schools spend nearly $9,000 per pupil. So, for every pupil who takes the $5,000 savings account, there is about $4,000 per pupil in funding for public education those who remain – in less crowded classrooms.

After the second suit was filed, Gov. Brian Sandoval released a statement saying, “My office was notified by Educate Nevada Now that its representatives would file an additional lawsuit against Nevada’s sweeping school choice effort. My position has not changed. I strongly support school choice and I firmly believe that an expedited hearing and, if necessary, a final ruling by the Nevada Supreme Court is in the best interest of all parties.”

Sandoval said he hopes the two cases will be consolidated and expedited to remove any uncertainty for parents and educators.

The law takes effect Jan. 1 and first savings accounts could be established in the spring if the courts can make short work of these suits, and we call on them to do so.

The courts have a history of expediting child custody cases, and these could be equated to that level of significance and timeliness. — TM

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