The deserving rich

Progressives are profoundly disappointed in last week’s Nevada Supreme Court decision that found the school voucher program passed by Republicans in the 2015 legislative session to be constitutional except in its funding mechanism. Using taxpayer money intended for public education to provide subsidies to wealthy parents to send their children to religious private schools seems to clearly violate the constitutional separation of church and state. But the Supreme Court decided otherwise in a 4-2 majority decision, saying once the money is deposited in the “Educational Savings Accounts” it ceases to be public funds. And unless and until the decision is overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s the law of Nevada.

Now there’s just one thing standing in the way of implementing the broadest-in-the-country voucher program—about $40 million. The Supreme Court said the allocation of taxpayer money to private schools must be funded separately from the Distributive School Account which supports public schools. That means the Nevada Legislature must find significant new resources to subsidize the private religious education of children from wealthy families.

But will the taxpayers support yet another giveaway of their funds to the rich?

Sparks Assemblymember Jill Dickman thinks so. In a quickly issued press release she requested an “immediate Legislative fix,” although she didn’t specify where she thinks the $40 million should come from. Attorney General Adam Laxalt crowed about his victory, saying the “small funding issue” can be fixed and help thousands of parents who want their children to exit the public school system.

The pressure is now on Gov. Brian Sandoval to add the issue to the anticipated special legislative session next week, an “emergency” meeting of the Legislature that will occur less than 30 days before the general election. It would be a Hail Mary move since it is widely anticipated that Democrats will regain control of the Assembly on Nov. 8, and it’s no secret they despise school vouchers, as they’ve managed to protect public schools from them for decades.

The emergency session, featuring five new legislators appointed for just a few weeks, is also scheduled to grant $750 million to the Raiders for a new football stadium in Las Vegas, through an increase in the Las Vegas room tax. It wouldn’t be that far of a reach for the Legislature to raise the room tax a little more to find the extra $40 million for school vouchers.

There’s just one small obstacle—that pesky 2/3 vote requirement, much loved by Republicans until now. Democrats believe educational savings accounts (ESAs) siphon funding from public schools and other vital services to fill the bank accounts of primarily wealthy families, since most Nevadans cannot afford the price of private school, even with the taxpayer subsidy. Compromise will be needed to reach any agreement, such as limiting the vouchers to very low-income families, defeating the Republicans’ desire to please their wealthy base.

It’s also an inconvenient time to increase taxes to fund school vouchers in Washoe County, where there’s a November ballot measure to increase sales tax to fund construction of new schools and repair old ones. The prospect of raising taxes for public schools while providing taxpayer-funded incentives for the upper class to abandon them is a disconnect that is guaranteed to anger middle-class voters.

Funding the vouchers separately will enable Nevadans to fully understand that they are paying taxes to support Catholic and other religious schools while their neighborhood schools are overcrowded and crumbling. If legislators decide Nevada can afford to set aside $40 million for wealthy students, the rest of us have every right to demand the Legislature find the money to bring public schools up to a reasonable standard.

But that’s going to take a whole lot more than $40 million.