One of the few things of value to be ground up and spat out by our Nevada legislative sausage factory this year was the education saving accounts (ESA) law created by Senate Bill 302.
Gov. Brian Sandoval quickly signed the bill into law.
SB302 sets up savings accounts for parents who choose to take their children out of public schools. For most the annual account will 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.
It passed the Legislature with party line votes on both sides of the building — Republicans favoring and Democrats opposed.
The claim by Democrats that this will strip desperately needed funding from already starving local school budgets is blatantly false. It will relieve those schools of overcrowding and will only cost them a portion of the state’s Distributive School Account. Each school would still get 10 percent of state funding for most students who leave, as well as local and federal funds for students zoned in that school but who do not attend. Schools would actually get more funding per pupil for those who remain in public schools and will not have to build as many new schools.
The education savings account can be spent on tuition at private schools — even church-operated schools, according to backers — textbooks, transportation, tutoring, testing, curriculum and supplemental materials.
Apparently the money can be used for homeschooling even though the law states, “A parent may not establish an education savings account for a child who will be homeschooled …”
Reportedly this is just an attempt to prevent public schools from interfering with homeschoolers’ autonomy, because the law also says children qualify for a savings account when they are “not enrolled full-time in a public or private school and who receives all or a portion of his or her instruction from a participating entity …”A parent can be a “participating entity.”
So, children can be schooled at home, just don’t call it homeschooling.
But don’t start budgeting for fall classes just yet. The law includes a requirement that the child in question must have “attended a public school for 100 consecutive school days to enter into an agreement …”
Then there is the likelihood of a constitutional challenge.
Assemblyman Elliot Anderson, a Las Vegas Democrat, has been telling reporters that the law is “blatantly unconstitutional,” because it would allow taxpayer money to be spent on church-run private schools.
Article 11 of the Nevada Constitution states: “Sectarian instruction prohibited in common schools and university.” And: “No public money to be used for sectarian purposes.”
Many state constitutions have some variation on this so-called Blaine Amendment.
You can count on a lawsuit to be filed shortly after the first child with an ESA enrolls in a church-operated school.
A Blaine Amendment challenge of Arizona’s ESA law failed — even though the state court previously declared vouchers unconstitutional — because the court found ESAs deposit “funds into an account from which parents may draw to purchase a wide range of services.”
Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt will be tasked with defending the Nevada law when the court challenge comes. Perhaps, he can argue that these savings accounts are not tax money at all but simply a way to allow parents to keep their money instead of paying taxes to support public schools they do not use.
Choice and competition will make the education system better for all children in Nevada, whether they remain in public schools, attend private schools or are homeschooled.
Under this law there will be proof. The law requires students with ESAs to take standardized examinations in math and English and make the results available to the state Department of Education, which must publish aggregate data on the results. — TM