If the issue’s predictable, so is the outrage
It was offensive to see so much organized outrage upon the filing of a lawsuit that everyone knew was coming. Gov. Sandoval was “disappointed.” State Sen. Ben Kieckhefer was righteously apoplectic, blaming the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada for “forcing poor and minority students into chronically failing schools and furthering cycles of generational poverty.” One partisan wag wondered why the ACLU “hates poor children.”
The comments were in response to the first of several legal challenges to the broad school voucher program championed by Sandoval and the Republican legislature, a proposal that did not earn a single Democratic vote precisely due to the negative impact the law will have on poor children.
The lawsuit says the school voucher program, which allocates around $5,000 of taxpayer funding for every student placed in private school, is unconstitutional as it violates an 1880 amendment to the Nevada constitution. That amendment states “No public funds of any kind or character whatever, state, County or Municipal, shall be used for sectarian purpose,” a position completely in line with our nation’s cherished notion of the separation of church and state.
The Republicans insist their broadest-in-the-nation school voucher program was specifically designed to get around the constitution by giving the money to parents in the form of an Education Savings Account (ESA), instead of directly awarding the funds to religious schools, which make up more than 50 percent of Nevada’s private school choices. They seem willfully indifferent to how this manipulative design concept gives credence to the argument the ACLU is making. Filtering the money through an ESA doesn’t change the end result: Our tax money will be used to fund religious instruction.
Parents certainly have the right to send their children to schools where students reportedly must “pledge allegiance to the Bible, God’s Holy Word.” But the Nevada constitution says taxpayers can’t pay for that choice.
It’s likely another lawsuit will be filed against the voucher program by an advocacy group, Educate Nevada Now, on the issue of uniformity. Private schools do not have to follow the same standards of public schools in terms of accepting all students regardless of any special needs they might have, tracking student performance, curriculum standards, or testing. As policy director Sylvia Lazos told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “In the case of private schools, none of those requirements exist and that’s why they’re private. We’re going to use public funds to subsidize and basically finance a system that is not uniform.”
While Republicans and their wealthy constituents sputter about the possibility of an injunction to stop the program so the courts can sort out the ill-conceived, barely vetted school voucher plan that is not really dedicated to serving poor children but rather subsidizing the rich, consider the deep community enthusiasm for other educational improvements from the 2015 session, like the extra funding for Zoom schools, targeted to under-achieving areas.
As veteran kindergarten teacher Angie Sullivan explains: “My school has become one of the 29 Zoom schools in Vegas. Free preschool. All day kindergarten. Seventeen extra days a year—summer academy. Smaller class sizes. Extra language, small group practice with specialists. The veteran teachers at my school were all looking at each other and saying—we have been wanting this for years. Because it will work. It is best practice—no tricks and no gimmicks, just more support for kids who need it.”
If Republicans like Kieckhefer are truly concerned about educating poor children, they should stop demonizing the ACLU for upholding Nevada’s constitution and direct that energy towards protecting the taxes that support Zoom schools and other new educational programs. It won’t keep wealthy parents happy, but it will do far more to address the generational poverty Kieckhefer has suddenly discovered.