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Nevada AG’s office urges judge to rule soon on case involving school choice bill

The state attorney general’s office formally nudged a Las Vegas judge on Friday to move more quickly on a case that challenges the constitutionality of Nevada’s controversial new school choice bill.

The lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada in August, has languished in the courtroom of Clark County District Judge Eric Johnson, who faces three opponents in a retention election.

Meanwhile, a separate case challenging the state’s new education savings accounts, which allow parents to use per-pupil public funds to pay for private school tuition, moved swiftly through a Carson City court and now awaits a hearing before the Nevada Supreme Court.

In a filing submitted Friday, Attorney General Adam Laxalt’s office asked Johnson to make a decision in the ACLU’s case. If he doesn’t do so before May 13, Laxalt “reluctantly” will ask the state Supreme Court to step in.

“This case presents issues of statewide importance that require resolution as quickly as possible,” state Solicitor General Lawrence VanDyke wrote in the filing.

“Because half a year has passed with no resolution on these issues, thousands of families who have understandably made plans for their children based on the availability of education savings accounts are now on the threshold of having their plans for the 2016-17 school year irreparably disrupted,” the filing reads.

Senate Bill 302, which the Nevada Legislature passed and Gov. Brian Sandoval signed into law last year, allows parents to create an education savings account, or ESA, through the state treasurer’s office once they pull their children out of a public or charter school.

Widely viewed as the most sweeping school choice bill in the country, SB 302 then offers parents about $5,100 in per-pupil state funding to pay for tuition at private and religious schools. Parents also can spend the money on homeschooling, tutors and other education services.

In August, the ACLU of Nevada, its parent organization, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State sued on behalf of a group of taxpayers to stop implementation of SB 302. They argue the bill violates a provision of the state constitution that prohibits the use of taxpayer money on sectarian, or religious, purposes.

As of January, 27 of the 48 schools that have applied to participate in the ESA program have a religious affiliation, according to the ACLU of Nevada.

Amy Rose, legal director for the civil rights organization, said Friday she needed more time to read the attorney general’s filing more closely.

“Everyone wants the case resolved and have it resolved in a thoughtful way where everyone’s views are considered,” Rose said. “We appreciate that the court is taking everything under consideration.

“We all understand that this is a time-sensitive matter.”

One month after the ACLU filed its lawsuit, a separate group of plaintiffs filed a similar complaint later in Carson City. Within four months, District Judge James Wilson issued an injunction to halt the implementation of SB 302.

He ruled in January that the constitution prevents any diversion of public funds appropriated for public schools to fund private school tuition.

Since then, the ACLU’s case has moved glacially toward a standstill.

Johnson held a status conference in early February to hear the two sides debate a fact-finding portion of the case. He held a similar hearing in March, when he indicated the possibility of issuing a final decision soon.

However, attorneys for the opponents of SB 302 questioned what impact Johnson’s decision actually would have, considering Wilson already put the brakes on SB 302.

Johnson then asked each side to submit briefs on the issue and has yet to make a decision in the meantime.

Contact Neal Morton at nmorton@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279. Find @nealtmorton on Twitter.

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