February 2016 Church & State - February 2016

AU Legal Director Argues Against Voucher Program In Nevada

  AU admin

Nevada’s new voucher program will lead to direct taxpayer funding of religious schools in violation of the Nev­ada Constitution, an Americans Uni­ted attorney recently told a state judge.

During an oral argument held in December, AU Legal Director Richard B. Katskee told a Clark County court that it’s perfectly acceptable for parents to send their children to religious schools – as long as they pay for it themselves.

State Solicitor General Lawrence VanDyke, however, asked that the case against the voucher program, known formally as the Nevada Education Savings Account, be dismissed because he claimed the accounts do not subsidize religious schools. He said parents may choose how they spend the money they receive from the state, so the state is only a middle man.

Judge Eric Johnson of the Eighth Judicial District Court presided over an argument that spanned several hours. A ruling is pending.

The state’s sweeping voucher plan, which was signed into law by Gov. Brian Sandoval in 2015, is being challenged in court by Americans United, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada. The groups represent taxpayers and parents who say the program violates the Nevada Constitution. 

Under the program, which would be among the largest voucher schemes in the nation if left in place, parents of students enrolled in a public school for at least 100 days may transfer their children to participating private schools, including religious schools, and would be eligible to receive about $5,000 in public education funds to pay for tuition, textbooks and other costs. The funds will be disbursed through so-called “Education Savings Accounts,” and there are no restrictions on how participating schools can use the money.

The Duncan v. Nevada lawsuit argues that the funding arrangement violates Article XI, Section 10, of the Nevada Constitution, which prohibits the use of public funds for any sectarian purpose. The lawsuit also claims that the program runs afoul of Article XI, Section 2, which requires the legislature to “provide for a uniform system of common schools.”

The lead plaintiff in the suit 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.

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