ACLU Appeals Nevada Judge’s Ruling Upholding ESA

Published July 25, 2016

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is appealing a Las Vegas judge’s ruling determining the state’s education savings accounts (ESA) program to be constitutional.

Ninety-six percent of K–12 students in Nevada are eligible for the state’s ESA program, which allows parents to transfer their students out of public schools and have access to all or a portion of the state money that would have been spent on their child in public school to spend on their choice of educational services, such as private school tuition, textbooks, or tutoring. The ESA program is available statewide.

ACLU sued Nevada in August 2015, alleging the ESA program violated the state constitution’s Blaine amendment, which bans the use of public money for “sectarian purposes.”

Parents in Charge, Judge Rules

In May, Nevada District Court Judge Eric Johnson dismissed the lawsuit, ruling, “The state has no influence or control over how any parent makes his or her genuine and independent choice to spend his or her ESA funds.”

Johnson wrote in his decision, “Parents, if they choose to use the ESA program, must expend the ESA funds for secular education goods and services, even if they choose to obtain those services from religion affiliated schools.”

ACLU is now appealing the ruling to the Nevada Supreme Court. The organization’s Nevada legal director, Amy Rose, said in a statement the purpose of the appeal is “to cease private religious schools’ ability to use taxpayer dollars to indoctrinate and discriminate against students on the basis of religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, and other grounds.”

Worst or Near-Worst Public Schools

Nevada’s education system has continuously been ranked as one of the worst in the country.

Michael Schaus, communications director at the Nevada Policy Research Institute, says the only solution ESA critics propose to solve the state’s education problem is to increase government spending.

“It’s hard to ignore that Nevada ranks 49th or 50th out of the nation in terms of student achievement,” Schaus said. “The critics’ ‘solution’ to the state’s failing education system is, unsurprisingly, to increase funding and continue the status quo.”

ESAs to Benefit Public Schools

Schaus says critics are also unduly concerned about how public schools will be funded if money is diverted from them.  

“It is true that public schools won’t be receiving money for students that they are no longer obligated to educate, but this really isn’t different from normal,” Schaus said. “The only difference is that the state’s share of per-pupil funding, which was previously going to the school, will now go to fund the student’s ESA rather than revert back to the state’s general fund. Because schools will continue to receive all their local and federal funds, this means that the overall per-pupil funding, from all sources, will actually increase as more and more students take advantage of ESAs.”

Meeting Individual Needs

Tim Keller, managing director of the Arizona office of the Institute for Justice, says ESAs are all about meeting children’s needs.

“There is simply no one-size-fits-all approach to educating children,” Keller said. “Educational choice programs like Nevada’s ESA program empower parents to find the educational setting or settings that best serve each one of their children’s unique educational needs. ESAs, in particular, allow parents to truly customize and tailor their child’s educational program by allowing parents to spend ESA funds on a wide variety of educational goods and services.”

Tori Hart ([email protected]) is a government relations intern at The Heartland Institute.