Nevada’s ESA program sets new bar

Nevada is known for a lot of things, from casinos, conventions, and celebrity chefs to Area 51, atomic testing, and NASCAR. We get around. Some might say our reputation precedes us.

Nevada is also well known for its education — and not just because we routinely sit at the bottom of so many state-ranked lists. Nah, we’re also known as the state with the most expansive school choice program in the entire nation. Yup, we’re at the top of that list.

Senate Bill 302, Nevada’s school choice or “voucher” program, was passed and signed into law within hours of adjournment sine die of the 78th Legislative Session last June. This new school-choice law gives a “grant” to any student in Nevada who wants to leave the public school system in favor of going to a private school or other type of non-traditional school experience for a better education, providing they follow the guidelines.

Here are the rules. Ready?

1) The funds can be used only for educational products and services — like tuition, personal tutors, online courses, transportation, tests, and school supplies — by approved vendors.

2) The student must be enrolled in a public school or public school course for a minimum of 100 days.

That’s it. It’s simple, really. And, if you’re a military child or under the age of 7, that last requirement is waived altogether. No prob.

The yearly amount a student can apply for is $5,100 or $5,700, depending on if the child has a disability and/or has a household income that is less than 185 percent of the federally designated level of poverty.

There are no restrictions when applying for an Education Savings Account. Students are not bound by grades, location, attendance, family income, or any other factor. Also, grants are valid for one full school year; they may be terminated or renewed for any subsequent school year, at will, by the ESA holder.

This shiny, new law does have its down side, however. The ESA “grants” aren’t free.

Wait. What?!

Nope. The “grants” are funded based on a percentage (90-100 percent) of the state guaranteed per-pupil basic support* the school districts receive according to how many students are registered for public school in a given year.

(*This number fluctuates, by the way, thanks to the Nevada Plan, the primary funding formula for K-12 education created back in 1967 that’s still used today. In this formula, each school district has its own basic support guarantee, and it just so happens that Clark County’s per-pupil amount dropped $15 this biennium. Yes, dropped! Plus, we’re already starting at a disadvantage: Nevada’s state-guaranteed per-pupil funding is approximately half of the national average.)

Oh, and don’t forget to read the bill’s fine print. The only other thing the grant money can be used for are “account management fees.” Yeah. You read that right. According to Sections 8 and 10 of SB302, the “State Treasurer may deduct from the amount of the grant not more than 3 percent for the administrative costs” and to pay “reasonable fees for the management of the education savings accounts.”

Late last year, the State Treasurer’s Office released demographic information regarding the applications it received. The data revealed a lot, mostly that the majority (approximately 90 percent) of the school voucher applicants live in affluent neighborhoods, come from communities with high private school enrollment, and only a very few (approximately 10 percent) are actually coming from the inner city where educational choices would be most beneficial. In total, there were more than 4,100 applicants by the end of the initial enrollment period.

The voucher law has caused a stir among those looking to get their money and who have moved children in and out of schools to accommodate the ESA’s 100-day requirement and also among those who believe the law is unconstitutional. Several lawsuits have been filed.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada is challenging the State of Nevada on grounds that the law violates constitutional provisions that prohibit public money from being used for private religious purposes.

The second suit, filed against the Nevada State Treasurer, Lopez v. Schwartz, claims that the ESA law is unconstitutional because state laws prohibit taxpayer funds earmarked for the operation of public schools to be used for anything else.

This suit also argues that it will drain critical funding resources from public schools and is unconstitutional because it decreases the prescribed funding set in the state budget for public education. Also, it is unconstitutional, they say, because it uses public funds to pay for private schools that are not mandated to serve all students, meet accountability, or abide by anti-discrimination laws.

District Judge James Wilson, who heard the case and granted a preliminary injunction based on the strength of the plaintiff’s arguments, was reportedsaying that the state constitution requires “the legislature to set apart or assign money to be used to fund the operation of the public schools, to the exclusion of all other purposes.”

State Attorney General Adam Lexalt filed an appeal with the Nevada Supreme Court to lift Judge Wilson’s injunction on the ESA program and expedite the decision on the law’s constitutionality.

HOPE will continue to observe and disseminate the information related to the ESA law as it heads to the Nevada Supreme Court and its looming February application funding deadline.

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