Broad definition of civil rights

Are educational savings accounts (ESAs) a civil rights issue? That’s what GOP Sen. Scott Hammond of Las Vegas thinks. In fact, he believes ESAs are “a revolution.” Hammond made these remarks at an outdoor protest in Carson City in honor of “National School Choice Week,” organized to support the school voucher bill passed by the Republican-controlled Nevada Legislature in 2015 on a party line vote. But the ESAs were not implemented after the Nevada Supreme Court determined the funding source had been taken from public schools, a state constitutional violation.

Despite the shift in party control of the legislature to the Democrats last year, Gov. Sandoval has included $60 million for ESAs in the next biennium’s budget. Democrats intensely dislike ESAs, but Republicans are hoping the leadership can be pressured into passing another version of the most sweeping school voucher bill in the country, with no income test for eligibility and very broad categories for expenditures with little accountability.

The 2015 legislation set aside about $5,100 per student in each voucher, far less than the cost of tuition of most private schools in Nevada, essentially turning the program into a subsidy for wealthy families, many of whom already send their children to private school. An analysis by the Las Vegas Sun found that most of the ESA applications are filed by families living in middle and upper income neighborhoods. The newspaper determined that the application rate for ESAs was just one per 1,000 people in inner city neighborhoods in Nevada compared with one per 100 people in the suburbs.

Hammond’s “vouchers are civil rights” claim originates in states like Texas where conservative politicians are trying to reframe the issue from subsidies for higher-income families to providing educational “choice” for low-income minority children, language many civil rights leaders consider “blasphemous.”

Charles Foster Johnson, executive director of Pastors for Texas Children, a pro-public education group, says equating efforts to use public funds for parochial education with the civil rights struggle represents “a desperate and cynical attempt to make vouchers more palatable, [and] it dishonors the memory and witness of those who sacrificed so much in the quest toward human equality and justice.”

Nevada’s ACLU objects to the use of taxpayer funds to support the discrimination that is allowed in private schools against “students, parents, teachers and staff on the basis of religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.” Legal Director Amy Rose points out that private schools may reject LGBTQ students and refuse to accommodate students with special needs. At some schools, students and parents are required to sign “statements of faith” before they can enroll.

Nevada law also does not require the same standards of public and private schools. The ACLU has compiled examples of discriminatory policies allowed in Nevada’s private schools, including schools that will “reject an applicant or dis-enroll a student” who is gay or bisexual. At least one Christian school requires teachers to be “born-again,” and others offer discounts on tuition only to people of a certain faith.

Nevada parents may choose these schools for their children despite these civil rights violations precisely because they are private schools, exercising their religious freedom. Parents who want to educate their children according to specific religious principles, discriminatory as they may be, are free to do so, although not yet on the taxpayer’s dime.

Hammond’s attempt to cloak these discriminatory values under the mantle of civil rights is misleading and deeply offensive. As the 2017 legislature takes up the new voucher plan, legislators should reject this cynical attempt to subsidize the personal choices of wealthier Nevada families. Instead, they should focus on strengthening the public education system our civil rights heroes fought so hard to secure for all of our children.