- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 9, 2015

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) - Nevada’s broad new Education Savings Account program has attracted its second legal challenge in two weeks, this time from seven parents who say the law will undermine public school funding and disproportionately benefit wealthier families.

The group of parents from Reno and Las Vegas filed the lawsuit Wednesday in First Judicial District Court in Carson City. Democratic former Nevada state Sen. Justin Jones and Sylvia Lazos of the group Educate Nevada Now are also involved in the challenge.

“The Nevada Constitution makes it crystal clear that the funding provided for our public schools can only be used to operate those schools, and not for any other purpose,” Jones said in a statement. “The voucher law, by taking funding out of the public schools to pay for private school tuition and other private services, blatantly violates this explicit mandate enshrined in our state constitution.”

Nevada lawmakers passed a law this spring creating education savings accounts, which allow parents to claim about $5,000 of their child’s state public education allotment and use it at a private school or for other qualified education expenses. While the state treasurer’s office has received more than 3,000 applications to date and is working toward developing an online system to manage the program, payments aren’t expected to be distributed until April.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed Wednesday say the money will provide a windfall to parents who currently have their children in private school and can afford the tuition. But they say payments of about $5,000 a year still aren’t enough to cover the full expenses of attending many private schools, meaning only parents who can afford to cover the difference will be able to participate.

The lawsuit also says the program will support private schools that can decline students based on their academic performance and ability to pay, leaving public schools with a higher concentration of needy students and less money.

Private school parents have argued that they pay into the public school system that their children aren’t using, and education savings accounts would allow them to finally tap into those tax dollars. Plaintiffs say they don’t mind parents choosing private schools, but disagree that that parents are entitled to state education funds after leaving the public system.

“There are many applications of my tax dollars that I don’t derive personal benefit from,” Lazos said, using the example of a rural road used by few people but funded publicly. “It benefits us all to have a well-educated citizenry even if it’s not my child.”

The latest lawsuit has a different premise than one filed two weeks ago by the American Civil Liberties Union. That one argues that education savings accounts violate the Blaine Amendment, a Nevada constitutional provision banning the use of public funds for religious purposes.

Democrats have consistently opposed education savings accounts, while Republicans have touted it as a “pioneering” step toward school choice that will help children leave failing schools and find a more customized education option.

The state treasurer’s office said it met three times with the Nevada attorney general’s office to plot their defense against the ACLU’s lawsuit. Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval requested last week that the ACLU case be fast-tracked to offer certainty to Nevada parents, some of whom have pulled their children out of private or homeschool settings to satisfy the ESA program’s eligibility requirement of 100 days in public school.

“The uncertainty and legal gridlock created by this lawsuit will significantly impact student success,” Sandoval said Friday. “This will only hinder our efforts to equip every Nevada student with the tools they need to pursue the opportunities available in the new Nevada economy.”


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