July/August 2016 Church & State - July/August 2016

State Court Rejects Legal Challenge To Nevada Voucher Plan

  AU admin

A Nevada court has rejected arguments by Americans United and its allies that the state’s new voucher program directs public funds to the support of sectarian schools.

In a May decision, Clark County District Court Judge Eric Johnson wrote that the program’s funds are “reserved for educational purposes, and not for any sectarian purpose. The state has no influence or control over how any parent makes his or her genuine and independent choice to spend his or her [Education Savings Account] funds. Consequently, the state cannot be deemed to be using the funds for a sectarian purpose as the parents, and not the state, direct through their own independent decision the funds to religious education schools.”

Johnson also rejected the argument that the program represents a failure by state lawmakers to “provide for a uniform system of common schools” as is required by the Nevada Constitution.

The state’s sweeping voucher plan, which was signed into law by Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) 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, 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 voucher funding arrangement violates Article XI, Section 10, of the Nevada Constitution, which prohibits the use of public funds for any sectarian purpose.

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.

Americans United and its allies are considering an appeal of the ruling.

Nevada’s voucher program also faces a separate legal challenge, which is ongoing. In that case, a different state court struck down implementation of the program. Observers believe the matter will have to be resolved by the Nevada Supreme Court.

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