Nevada Governor Calls for Amendment to Permit Vouchers

Published February 17, 2011

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) is proposing education reforms aimed at boosting student achievement while saving taxpayers money. Among the most ambitious and controversial of Sandoval’s proposals is a constitutional amendment to implement a voucher program allowing parents to choose a public or private school for their child’s education.

Sandoval discussed his education reform plans at length during his first State of the State address, in January. His other proposals include ending teacher tenure, seniority protection, and student social promotion. Sandoval also stressed the need to grade schools on a simple A to F scale, evaluate teachers and principals based on student value-added data, and promote expansion of charter schools.

Sandoval pointed to Nevada’s educational achievement gaps and last-in-the-nation high-school graduation rates, stressing how “the education system is broken.”

“Vouchers make a private school education a possibility to more families” Sandoval told lawmakers. He also applauded the efforts of former Washington, DC schools chancellor and founder of Students First, Michelle Rhee, who was in attendance.

Open-Minded Legislature

Dale Erquiaga, a senior advisor to Sandoval, has said the governor’s voucher bill will come in the form of a constitutional amendment.

The governor’s office says it is pursuing a constitutional amendment because of Nevada’s “Blaine Amendment,” which reads in part, “No public funds of any kind or character whatever, State, County or Municipal, shall be used for sectarian purpose [sic].”

Sen. Barbara Cegavske (R-Las Vegas), a longtime voucher proponent, says she “looks forward to working with the governor on school vouchers” and thinks the budget crisis means there is a real chance at changing education policy in Nevada.

“Democrats have a new leader in the Assembly who is more open-minded” she said. In 2007, Cegavske’s special needs voucher bill stalled in the Democratic-controlled Assembly, never making it out of the education committee.

Worried About Mandates
Other school choice supporters aren’t as excited about the governor’s proposal.

Erin Cranor, a newly elected trustee to the Clark County School Board—the fifth largest school district in the nation—said she worries vouchers would dilute the autonomy that makes private schools successful.

“Private schools don’t have to deal with the feel-good legislative mandates that burden public schools,” she said. She says she worries burdensome public mandates will follow the vouchers, leaving students with no real options at all.

Lengthy Amendment Process

Amending the state constitution is a complicated and time-consuming process. The governor’s proposed amendment must be passed by the state legislature in two consecutive sessions and ratified by voters in the following general election.

If the state legislature fails to act, Sandoval may take his proposed amendment directly to the voters, who must pass the amendment in two consecutive general elections.

Either route would require four to six years before vouchers could become law. Pursuing a new law would be considerably less time-consuming but would be subjected to a constitutional fight in the state courts because of the state’s Blaine amendment.

Representatives from Nevada’s ACLU argued in 2010 before the state assembly a voucher bill proposed by then-Gov. Jim Gibbons (R) would be unconstitutional. The Arizona ACLU successfully overturned that state’s special-needs and foster-care voucher programs in 2009.

Legislative Strategy Argued
“Arizona is the first and only state with a Blaine amendment to have a voucher program overturned,” notes Clint Bolick, an attorney at the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute who successfully defended an Ohio voucher program before the U.S. Supreme Court in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris.

Bolick argues a voucher program would be legal in Nevada even without a constitutional amendment, because “vouchers are not aid to religious schools, but aid to students, just like the G.I. Bill” that provides grants for higher education.

Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute acknowledges voucher programs in Arizona and Florida have been defeated recently, but he notes, “No modern education tax credit program has ever been overturned.”

Bolick and Coulson both say the governor should first try to get the legislature to pass the reforms as state law, either with vouchers or education tax credits, before pursuing a constitutional amendment.

Patrick Gibbons ([email protected]) is an independent education policy analyst in Las Vegas.