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Nevada's High Court Scrutinizes School Choice Program

Nevada Supreme Court

The Nevada Supreme Court heard arguments today both for and against the state's sweeping school choice program. 

The high court heard two challenges to Nevada's Education Savings Account program, or ESAs, passed by the Republican-controlled legislature last year.

The ESAs are designed to give parents the state's per-pupil allocation, roughly $5,000, to pay for private school tuition and other qualified programs.

At question in the first challenge is whether the state inappropriately diverted funds from public schools.

Paul Clement, a former U.S. solicitor general, represented the state in defending the program.

"That's why this is a very practical approach," he said. "They have one account, the Distributed School Account, that is going to fund everybody that stays in the public school and everybody that uses the Education Savings Account."

On the other side, attorney Tamerlin Godley said the state had an obligation to maintain its public education system.

"If we can't second guess what they appropriate, then we have to make sure that they reasonably appropriate the funds that are sufficient for public schools first, and that they use that money," she said.

Both sides faced tough questioning from the justices. During one exchange with Clement, Justice James Hardesty asked whether the legislature had contradicted itself.

"Is that position inconsistent, though, with the declaration in SB-515 itself, that the appropriation is deemed sufficient to fund the public schools?" asked Hardesty.

"No, not in any way your honor, because the amount, $2 billion dollars, is sufficient for both purposes," said Clement. "And again, there are additional assurances."

"But the ESAs do not fund public schools," replied Hardesty.

"They don't," said Clement, "but anybody who takes the ESA is going to take it out of the distributed, DSA, account."

In the second challenge, justices also heard arguments over the constitutionality of allowing public money to go toward non-secular schools.

A ruling will come at a later date, but experts say the outcome could have national implications for education policy.  

The two cases are Schwartz vs. Lopez and Duncan vs. State, Office of the Treasurer.

Julia Ritchey is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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