Lieutenant governor criticized over ESA lawsuit

CARSON CITY — State Treasurer Dan Schwartz criticized Nevada’s lieutenant governor Thursday over a lawsuit filed on behalf of families seeking state money to send their children to private school.

Schwartz, whose office oversees Nevada’s new Education Savings Account program, said the suit could jeopardize ongoing legal actions that aim to uphold the controversial law giving parents state per-pupil funding to apply toward private tuition or other educational programs.

Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, a Las Vegas attorney who filed the suit this week in Clark County District Court, said the suit “addresses concerns of Nevada families who have already applied for education funding under the law.” Hutchison said he took on the case for free and he dismissed the criticism from the state treasurer.

“The lawsuit I filed this week on behalf of my clients is separate and distinct from any other litigation and seeks an expedited court order declaring the law creating Education Savings Accounts constitutional,” Hutchison said in an email. “Thousands of Nevadans, including my clients, have applied for ESAs, which are supposed to be funded by the state early next year. My clients and other Nevadans relied on the funding promised through ESAs in enrolling their children in school this fall.

“If successful, the lawsuit will quickly remove any perceived impediment to the state fully funding the ESAs as promised,” Hutchison said. “That is a result that all state officials and Nevadans should anxiously embrace.”

But Schwartz, who is named as a defendant in the suit, said he was “baffled’ by Hutchison’s “recent legal maneuvers,” saying they amount to “little more than a side track to nowhere.”

“Hoping to bypass the current cases, the lieutenant governor could well jeopardize the attorney general’s defense of Nevada’s ESA program, endangering real benefits for the children and parents of Nevada,” Schwartz said in a press release.

The attorney general’s office has hired Paul Clement, a former U.S. solicitor general, to help defend against two lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the law passed by state lawmakers along party lines during the 2015 session.

One case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada argues the law violates a state constitutional provision prohibiting the use of taxpayer money for sectarian purposes. Many private schools are run by religious organizations. The other was filed by a group of parents

Considered the most sweeping school choice law in the country, the law allows parents to set up Education Savings Accounts within the state treasurer’s office to accept the per-pupil state funding for use toward private tuition. The amount averages about $5,000 annually. Students must first be enrolled in public school for 100 days to be eligible.

A legislative subcommittee is scheduled to approve final regulations next week implementing the program that makes funding available beginning in February. The ultimate future of the program, however, remains in the hands of the courts.

Contact Sandra Chereb at schereb@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901. Find her on Twitter: @SandraChereb.

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