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Judge dismisses lawsuit against Nevada school choice program

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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.

Updated Wednesday, May 18, 2016 | 6:20 p.m.

The first legal challenge to Nevada's sweeping school choice program has been defeated.

Clark County judge Eric Johnson today threw out a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, which argued the state's new education savings account program violated Nevada's prohibition on using public money for religious purposes.

Johnson ruled the program did not violate the so-called Blaine Amendment to the state constitution.

The program allows families to receive a portion of the state funds that would otherwise follow their student to a public school, for use in expenses like private school tuition or tutoring. If approved, families receive the money in a state-monitored savings account.

The ACLU sued late last year to block the program, enacted with the passage of SB302 during last year's Legislature.

The program has become a lightning rod in the national school choice debate. While other states, including Arizona, currently have education savings accounts, Nevada's program is groundbreaking in that the money is available potentially to any family, regardless of income or special needs.

Reactions from supporters came swiftly.

Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who is currently fighting another lawsuit against the program in a case headed for the state Supreme Court, called the ruling "a huge and important step in getting certainty for the thousands of families waiting to participate in Nevada’s ESA program."

“The court correctly dismissed these speculative and tenuous claims," the statement added.

Almost immediately after the news broke, the Nevada School Choice Partnership, a grassroots group that has organized extensive outreach around the program, released a statement lauding the news while a number of the program's supporters in the state Legislature weighed in.

"Today is a great day for school choice," Henderson Republican Stephen Silberkraus tweeted along with a stock photo of children giving thumbs up.

Opponents have countered that the money takes much-needed funds away from public schools at a time when many school districts and communities are struggling with low test scores and rising poverty.

"The Nevada Constitution provides robust safeguards for religious liberty to prevent this misuse of public funds, and the court's failure to give full effect to these protections is troubling," said ACLU legal director Amy Rose in a statement.

"The ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Covington & Burling, which represent the taxpayer plaintiffs, are studying the opinion, and we will make a decision on next steps soon."

The school-choice program still has other legal hurdles to clear, including a second lawsuit currently awaiting review by the Nevada Supreme Court.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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