Amendment would allow public funds to be used for school vouchers

Private faith-based schools in Nevada could see their enrollments soar in a few years if freshman state Sen. Michael Roberson has his way — and taxpayers will be asked to pay the tuition.

But first, those taxpayers will have to vote in two consecutive elections to amend provisions in the Nevada Constitution that ban the government from spending public money for sectarian purposes.

In this case, the public funds would pay for school vouchers so parents of children in kindergarten through 12th grade could choose where their children receive their education, whether it be a secular or religious private school.

Opponents agreed that parents know what’s best for their children, but said public money should be spent on public schools with public oversight. More pointedly, a longtime ACLU attorney said a voucher program that catered to faith-based schools would violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

With Nevada’s schoolchildren ranked at or near the bottom in every meaningful list, education reform is high on Gov. Brian Sandoval’s list of priorities. He supports Roberson’s goal.

The bill was heard for the first time Tuesday before the Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections.

Roberson tried to focus the discussion on the proposed amendment without delving into the voucher issue, but dozens of supporters and opponents had other ideas.

The Las Vegas Republican said the so-called Blaine Amendment in the Constitution was enacted in 1882 because of the “anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic bigotry” prevalent at the time. Lawmakers didn’t want tax dollars to support a Catholic orphanage in the state.

However, similar amendments exist in 36 other state constitutions to ensure public money isn’t spent for religious pursuits.

“This (Senate Joint Resolution 10) simply gives people the opportunity to decide if the Blaine Amendment is good policy for Nevada,” said Roberson, who noted only state constitutions have such amendments. Federal law does not ban school vouchers.

The voucher amount would depend on income and could be as high as $5,200, which would pay for nearly an entire year’s tuition at most faith-based schools.

According to Roberson, numerous studies conducted since the 1990s show that school choice boosts student achievement and graduation rates. Voucher schools also help improve public schools by providing competition for students, he said.

Jim Blockey, a teacher in the Clark County School District, also supported Roberson, saying students in private schools receive more discipline, more accountability and teachers are able to spend more of the day teaching.

He also pointed out the shortfalls at Clark County schools aren’t the fault of teachers, but the students.

But opponents, most who are tied in one way or another to the state’s K-12 system, said too many questions remain unanswered. They said private schools do not have to be accountable — not only in how well students test but how they would spend public money — and that private schools, unlike public schools, get to pick their students.

Allen Lichtenstein, lead attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment would be violated. The clause says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Other opponents said if the state did approve school vouchers, then private schools that benefit from public money should be held under the same rules as public schools, ranging from testing requirements to bus transportation.

And while the two sides are miles apart on whether Roberson’s plan is workable, all seemed to agree something needs to be done to improve Nevada’s troubled schools and students.

Contact reporter Doug McMurdo at dmcmurdo@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5512.

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