Las Vegas Sun

August 16, 2017

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Opponents of Nevada school vouchers launch second legal attack

Another lawsuit has been filed against Nevada’s controversial new school voucher program.

This time it’s from a group of parents in Las Vegas and Reno, who today filed suit against the program on the grounds that it violates the state’s prohibition on public money being used for religious purposes. The lawsuit, Lopez vs. Schwartz, was filed in Carson City district court.

The suit was announced by Educate Nevada Now, an advocacy group founded this year by the Rogers Foundation with the goal of addressing Nevada’s low level of education funding education as compared to other states. The group said it is supporting the lawsuit because it addresses the issue of education funding.

Fighting on behalf of the plaintiffs are attorneys from the Las Vegas-based firm Wolf, Rifkin, Shapiro, Schulman & Rabkin. Former Democratic state Sen. Justin Jones, a partner at the firm, is named as an attorney.

“The Nevada Constitution makes it crystal clear that the funding provided for our public schools can only be used to operate those schools, and not for any other purpose,” Jones said in a statement. “The voucher law, by taking funding out of the public schools to pay for private school tuition and other private services, blatantly violates this explicit mandate enshrined in our state constitution.”

Attorneys David Sciarra and Amanda Morgan of the New-Jersey-based, non-profit Education Law Center are also representing the parents.

It’s the second legal challenge to the law since late August, when the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada filed suit. The ACLU also claims the program, signed into law by state lawmakers earlier this year, violates the state constitution’s prohibition on public money being used for religious purposes.

Both lawsuits have called on Nevada courts to block the program from being implemented.

The program allows parents to pull their child out of public school and receive upwards of $5,000 in state money to spend on things like private school tuition. Proponents say it will give parents greater choice in their children’s education, but opponents say it violates existing state law.

A vast majority of private schools in Nevada are religious, with some including religious instruction as a vital part of their curriculum.

The Nevada Constitution states that, “No public funds of any kind or character whatever, State, County or Municipal, shall be used for sectarian purpose.”

Nevada law also states in NRS 387.045 that, “No portion of the public school funds shall in any way be segregated, divided or set apart for the use or benefit of any sectarian or secular society or association.”

SB302, the bill that created the program, was specifically written to exempt itself from that state statute.

"The voucher law undermines our uniform system of public schools which the Legislature is constitutionally obligated to maintain and support with sufficient funding," ENN policy director Sylvia Lazos said in a statement. “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.”

Proponents of the program argue that it doesn’t violate the law because the parents are making the decision of where to spend the money, not the state itself. If a family qualifies for the program, the state places the money into a savings account and lets the family choose how to spend it.

The news of the ACLU’s lawsuit prompted many supporters of the program to come to its defense, including Gov. Brian Sandoval, who called the lawsuit “disappointing.” Republican state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer accused the ACLU of wanting to force “poor and minority students into chronically failing schools and furthering cycles of generational poverty.”

The new lawsuit comes the same day the Nevada Treasurer’s office — the state entity charged with getting the program ready to roll out at the start of 2016 — revealed that more than 3,000 families had submitted applications to receive money through the program.

The treasurer’s office said it was working with state Attorney General Adam Laxalt to defend the program. Because the law is set to take effect at the start of next year, Sandoval asked Laxalt last week to fast-track court proceedings.

According to EEN, more parents are expected to join the lawsuit soon.

Although the Colorado Supreme Court ruled a voucher program unconstitutional earlier this year, school voucher programs have previously been upheld in states like North Carolina, Indiana and Arizona.

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