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June 24, 2017

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Constitutional challenge could be coming for Nevada private school vouchers

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Brad Coman / Nevada Appeal / AP

Students Isabel Onisile, 11, and Octavia McKindra, 11, attend a rally at Sierra Nevada Academy Charter School at the National School Choice Week Capitol celebration Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015, in Carson City.

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Senator Scott Hammond of the 77th (2013) Nevada Senatorial District.

This week the Colorado Supreme Court struck down a policy allowing state education funds to be funneled into private schools on the grounds that giving public money to religious institutions violated the state’s constitution.

Here in Nevada, a new law will give any parent who pulls their child out of public school around $5,000 in taxpayer money to spend on whatever education expenses they choose, including religious schooling. It’s the country’s most sweeping voucher program ever enacted.

Which begs the question: Will the same thing that happened in Colorado happen in Nevada?

Here’s what Nevada’s Constitution says: “No public funds of any kind or character whatever, State, County or Municipal, shall be used for sectarian purpose.”

Opponents of the new law say the language is fairly clear: The state can’t divert taxpayer money to religious schools.

“Anytime there are public funds going to purposes that are sectarian in nature, you have to consider whether or not that’s a violation of the First Amendment and the Establishment Clause,” said Tod Story, president of the Nevada ACLU.

But advocates say just because a school is religious doesn’t mean the instruction is too.

“It’s pretty obvious that the money is for an educational purpose,” said Michael Chartier, state programs director for the Friedman Foundation, which advised policymakers on the new law.

The debate over religious schools will be especially important in Nevada, where the vast majority of well regarded private schools are religious. For many families that might use the money, especially those who live in low-income areas in the inner city of Las Vegas, religious schools are the only private schools in the area.

And at many sectarian private schools, it’s difficult to disentangle religion from day-to-day learning.

In order to enroll at St. Anne’s Catholic School near downtown Las Vegas, for instance, parents must sign documents agreeing to support the “principles especially characteristic of a Catholic school, (and) exemplify the values and beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church.”

At St. Christopher’s, students are expected to participate in all religious activities except for the Sacraments. St. Francis de Sales requires parents and students to sign a document saying they will “be faithful” in their religious commitments and “strive to develop strong prayer lives.”

Many Catholic schools also give tuition discounts to parents who are already members of the church. So if parents became parishioners, they would have more voucher money to spend on other things.

That could matter in a potential lawsuit, but school choice advocates are staunchly against the state asking private schools to alter their existing policies.

“It’s vital that private schools not be required to change admissions policies,” Chartier said. “When you require schools to change that, you require them to change their culture. Parents pick them because of the culture they have.”

Scott Hammond, the Republican state senator who sponsored the bill, said the program is a lot like Medicaid, where the government often pays religious hospitals for patients’ medical care.

“We’ve done everything we can to ensure that we’ve had the separation there,” he said. “It’s not the state deciding [where the money is spent], it’s the individual.”

So far, nobody has stepped forward to challenge the law. But opponents say it’s just a matter a time.

“Somebody’s going to challenge it,” said John Vellardita, executive director of the Clark County teacher’s union. “They’re not going to get a free pass on this.”

Late last month Vellardita said his organization hadn’t made a decision yet. But what about the state teacher’s union, the Nevada State Education Association?

“We haven’t taken any positions or made any decisions,” said Ruben Murillo, the union’s president. “We’re not going to just jump into something without having a plan.”

Murillo said several groups had approached him about the program. He wouldn’t say which groups, but said that they were currently looking at the law and may decide soon.

Story said the ACLU is also looking into the law to see if it passes constitutional muster.

In North Carolina and Florida, court battles are still being waged over the constitutionality of vouchers. In Indiana and Alabama, vouchers have been declared constitutional.

In Colorado, vouchers were challenged almost as soon as they were approved. In most of the lawsuits, teacher’s unions have been the spearheading force. They’re often joined by a number of civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

A lawsuit can prevent states from putting vouchers into effect. But for now the Nevada program is safe. This summer the state treasurer’s office is drawing up the regulations, a process that could take until September.

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