The real choice

The Nevada Supreme Court has announced it will hear oral arguments on at least one of the lawsuits filed against the Educational Savings Accounts (ESA), Nevada’s broadest-in-the-nation school voucher law, on July 8. The arguments relate to a lawsuit filed by parents of Nevada students who object to the voucher program because it violates the state’s constitutional provision of uniform funding. Carson City District Court Judge James Wilson agreed with the parents, but an appeal of his decision was filed, asking the Supreme Court to overturn it.

A district court judge in Las Vegas, Eric Johnson, dealt a harsher blow to advocates of public education when he recently ruled in favor of the ESA. Johnson ruled against a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State that argues the ESA violates Article 11, Section 10 of the state’s constitution because it takes publicly funded education dollars away from public schools, funneling it to private religious schools under the guise of parental choice.

It’s worth noting that Judge Johnson was appointed last year by Governor Sandoval, who signed the law creating the voucher program, a bill championed by Republicans that failed to attract even one Democratic vote. Johnson is currently running to retain his appointed seat after being chosen by Sandoval to fill a vacancy in the middle of the 2015 legislative session.

In his decision, Judge Johnson found the mechanism by which the funding is provided to parents negates the problem of the state funding religious schools since it’s up to the parents to decide how to use the funds. He acknowledged the reality that the vast majority of private schools in Nevada are religious but agreed with the Legislature’s tortured work-around as a remedy to the constitutional ban of funding religious instruction with taxes.

It’s sickening to watch Republicans continue to pretend the ESA offers school “choice” for every student. They know most of the applications come from wealthier zip codes since the amount of dedicated funding doesn’t even cover tuition, leaving behind students from poor families. They also ignore the fact that these private schools are not required to accept high-cost students who need extra services. They act like the oversight mechanism to ensure that parents actually use the funding for proper educational purposes will prevent fraud. Worst of all, they refuse to acknowledge the harm done to public schools whose fixed costs, including a crumbling infrastructure, don’t change when wealthy students opt out.

Instead, the Republicans proudly tweet that Nevada’s school voucher program is available to any child regardless of income or need, and make much of the “choice” this offers poor families who want their children to go to a better school. They are oblivious to the fact that the average of $5,100 in tuition assistance doesn’t begin to cover the cost of a good private school, not to mention transportation and other expenses associated with a poor student leaving her neighborhood to attend school.

Let’s be clear. The real impact of the ESA is a taxpayer subsidy for private school tuition for wealthier Nevadans and fewer education dollars for a struggling public school system. You know, the one the rest of us use.

It’s up to the Supreme Court now to stand up for all of Nevada’s children and reject school vouchers in favor of a public education system that is adequately funded for everyone, rich or poor. Instead of perpetuating income inequality with separate but hardly equal educational systems, the Supreme Court should remind these elected officials that good public schools are the foundation of our great nation. Let’s use our taxes to invest in all our children.