Sep 29, 2016

The Nevada Supreme Court was correct to permanently block funding for a massive statewide school voucher program, Americans United for Separation of Church and State says.

In two cases decided today, the Nevada high court struck down S.B. 302, the law that created a voucher program to divert taxpayer dollars from public schools to private schools.

In those cases, including Duncan v. Nevada Office of the State Treasurer, which Americans United, the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, the American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm Covington & Burling, LLP filed on behalf of five Nevada citizens, the court ordered that the voucher program be permanently enjoined because it violates provisions of the Nevada Constitution requiring that money appropriated for public education actually be used to fund public schools.

“Nevada taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize religious schools,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Yet that is exactly what this voucher scheme would allow.”

Under the program, which would have been the largest voucher scheme in the nation if left in place, parents of students enrolled in public school for at least 100 days could transfer their children to participating private schools, including religious schools, and would have been eligible to receive more than $5,000 in public education funds to pay for tuition, textbooks and other costs. The funds were to be disbursed through so-called Education Savings Accounts, and there would have been no restrictions on how participating schools could use the money.

The two cases challenging the voucher program together argued that the funding scheme violates Article XI, Section 10, of the Nevada Constitution, which prohibits the use of public funds for any sectarian purpose, and Article XI, Sections 2 and 6, which require the legislature to use funds appropriated for public education to pay for the public schools.

The opinion holds: “we must conclude that the use of money that the Legislature appropriated for K-12 public education to instead fund education savings accounts undermines the constitutional mandates under Sections 2 and 6 to fund public education.”

“The court properly recognized that tax dollars set aside for public education should pay for public schools, which are open to all students regardless of religion, race and sexual orientation,” said Americans United Legal Director Richard B. Katskee, who argued one of the cases before the Nevada Supreme Court. “In doing so, the court also held that Nevada citizens are entitled to bring constitutional challenges to legislative expenditures that raise issues of significant public importance. That’s a critical new protection for the rights of all Nevadans.”

Katskee also noted that in light of the court’s decision, Nevada lawmakers would have to impose massive new taxes on Nevada’s citizens if they wish to appropriate money for a voucher program — even though taxpayers are already paying for a public-school system dedicated to serving all the state’s children.

Among the Plaintiffs represented by Americans United and its partners is Ruby Duncan, a mother, grandmother and longtime civil rights activist and the namesake for the Ruby Duncan Elementary School in Las Vegas. Rabbi Mel Hecht, Howard Watts III, Leora Olivas and Adam Berger are also plaintiffs in the suit. All object to the use of their taxes to fund private religious schools.