Nevada Judge Freezes State’s Education Savings Account Program Rollout

Published February 4, 2016

A state judge in Nevada is siding with opponents of a groundbreaking achievement in school choice, agreeing to freeze implementation of the state’s education savings account (ESA) program until a final ruling can be made on its legality.

The decision is forcing thousands of students to remain in government schools for an indeterminate amount of time.

James E. Wilson Jr., a judge for the Nevada Judicial District Court, agreed with the arguments presented by the Nevada chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, halting the ESA rollout. The plaintiffs claimed the ESA program violates the state’s constitution because it bypasses rules requiring the Nevada Legislature to appropriate taxpayer money to “fund the operation of the public schools in the State for kindergarten through grade 12.”

Public Schools Still Get Funds

Michael Schaus, communications director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute, says Nevada’s ESA program allows some state money to follow the student from government schools to private schools, or vice versa, but public schools will continue to receive significant funds for every child living in a school district, regardless of whether the child attends a public school or private school.

“Because a portion of per-student funding would continue to go to the [student’s government-assigned] school for each child who takes an ESA, despite the fact that actual enrollment at that school would drop, per-student funding would actually increase,” Schaus said. “The way that the state does their portion of education funding is broken down to per-pupil funding, a guaranteed basic support of $5,700 to 5,900 per student.

“Once [a student chooses to] leave the school district, the school would no longer qualify for [that child’s] state funds, but they are still getting their local and federal funds for that child even though they would no longer have to educate them,” Schaus said.

Matt Ladner, a senior advisor for policy and research at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, says delaying the education savings account program has serious consequences for Nevada families.

‘Disappointing Decision’

“It’s a disappointing decision, but it’s not unexpected,” Ladner said. “The judge basically said that the plaintiffs would suffer irreparable damage if this program were allowed to proceed. Those actually harmed are the defendants. They’ve been making plans about how to educate their children.”

Ladner says Nevada’s government-operated schools are failing children.

“The public schools in Nevada really are overcrowded,” Ladner said. “It’s quite acute. In Clark County, schools are literally surrounded by trailer parks, and there is a pool of 5,000 long-term substitute teachers. The reality is the public school system in Nevada cannot keep up with student growth.”

Offering more choice to parents and students solves several problems at once, Ladner says.

“[In its first planned year,] the ESA program was going to allow students to get out of overcrowded and underperforming schools,” Ladner said. “The reality of the situation is that we can either broaden our definition of public education and allow people to pursue their own happiness, or [we can] have students in portable buildings staffed by people who don’t have bachelor’s degrees as teachers.”

Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.