On September 9, 2015, a group of parents whose children attend Nevada public schools filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s new voucher law. The lawsuit, Lopez v. Schwartz, has generated media attention and interest from parents, educators and taxpayers.
In June 2015, the Nevada Legislature passed Senate Bill 302 (SB302) establishing a controversial program to use public funding to pay for private schooling. For students who qualify, the voucher law directs the State Treasurer to deposit taxpayer funding into private bank accounts – called “Education Savings Accounts” (ESAs) – to pay for private school tuition, tutoring, online classes, home-schooling expenses, transportation to and from private schools, and other private services.
ESAs are funded by diverting the per pupil funds provided by the Legislature for Nevada public schools. The ESA amount is based on the statewide average per pupil amount guaranteed in the state budget to operate the public schools. The vouchers are either 90% or 100% of that amount, or between approximately $5,100 and $5,710. For each ESA, the State Treasurer deducts the per pupil amount from public school district budgets, which then reduces the funding available to educate public school students.
Nevada parents sued because ESAs will take critically needed funding away from public schools and lower the quality of education for their children. ESAs will also reduce public school funding, causing cuts to teachers, support staff and other vital programs for the 450,000 Nevada children attending public schools across the state, many of whom are children with disabilities, English language learners (ELL), and students at-risk of falling behind or dropping out.
The Nevada Constitution prohibits taxpayer funds provided by the Legislature for the operation of the public schools from being used for any other purpose. The parents claim that the voucher program violates this constitutional ban by diverting the funding necessary to educate their children in the public schools to pay for private school vouchers.
The parents also claim that the voucher law violates the Nevada constitution by lowering the amount of funding provided in the Nevada state budget for public education and by using public funds to pay for private schools that are not required to serve all students, are not subject to anti-discrimination laws, and are not accountable for student performance like the public schools are.
In January 2016, the parents won their motion for a preliminary injunction in the trial court, which halted implementation of the voucher program. State Treasurer Dan Schwartz appealed the trial court decision to the Supreme Court of Nevada, which heard oral arguments in July 2016. On September 29, 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that the ESA voucher program is unconstitutional because it violates the prohibition on use of public school funds for other purposes, and permanently blocked its implementation.