Judge promises quick ruling in case challenging school choice law

CARSON CITY — A state judge heard arguments Wednesday and promised a swift ruling on a lawsuit seeking to block Nevada’s new school choice law.

Tammy Godley, an attorney representing six families opposed to education savings accounts, argued the law is unconstitutional because it takes money from a “lockbox” of funding earmarked for public education.

“Whatever mechanism they use, it’s coming out of the money the state Legislature set aside for public schools, and that’s safeguarded,” Godley told District Judge James Wilson during an hourlong hearing in Carson City.

But Lawrence VanDyke, Nevada solicitor general, countered that the state constitution authorizes lawmakers to encourage education “by all suitable means,” and the savings accounts conform to that goal.

He also disputed Godley’s contention that the program will dilute funding for public schools and harm public school children.

“They want this court to strike this down in its entirety,” VanDyke said.

“Ultimately, we don’t know if or how this program will affect the public schools,” he said, adding the claim of harm is “pure speculation” and should be rejected.

Wilson took the case under advisement but promised a quick ruling, noting the case was ultimately headed to the Nevada Supreme Court.

Senate Bill 302, passed by the Republican-controlled 2015 Legislature and signed by Gov. Brian Sandoval, is considered the nation’s most sweeping educational choice law.

Parents can set up education savings accounts administered by the state treasurer’s office and receive the state per-pupil rate that otherwise goes to the public school system. For most families the annual amount is around $5,000.

That money can then be used to offset tuition at private schools or toward homeschooling, transportation or other educational programs. The treasurer’s office has said more than 4,100 people have signed up for the accounts so far, and money is expected to flow into accounts in February. Based on early applications, Godley said Clark County schools would take a $17.5 million budget hit that will grow as more parents opt into the program.

But VanDyke said the ramifications of students taking ESAs were no different than students who leave the district or move out of state.

A separate lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada is also pending. That lawsuit argues the law violates a constitutional ban on using state money for sectarian purposes. But the program’s advocates argue that ESAs don’t violate that provision because the law gives parents, and not government officials, the choice to decide where to spend the money.

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

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