A good education can be the key to unlocking the American Dream. But absent a good education, our nation’s founding promise — that all men are created equal and endowed with an unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness — rings hollow. Sadly, Nevada’s public education system is not providing its students with anything remotely resembling a “good” education right now.
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2016 “Kids Count” report, Nevada’s public education system ranks 49th out of the 50 states. In the prior four years, Nevada ranked dead last. And following that report, the state Department of Education released composite ACT test scores showing that fewer than one in 10 high school juniors in Clark County is college ready.
Nevada’s public education system traps students in poor-performing schools based on their ZIP code and thus perpetuates a cycle of poverty from one generation to the next. But the past does not have to predict the future.
In 2015, Nevada’s Legislature and governor took bold steps in a serious effort to improve the state’s education system. The centerpiece of those reforms is educational choice; specifically, Nevada’s Education Savings Account Program.
The ESA program makes every Nevada student who was enrolled in a public school for at least 100 days of the prior school year eligible to withdraw from public school and instead receive approximately $5,000, deposited in a parent-controlled account. ESA funds can then be spent on a wide variety of educational goods and services, such as private school tuition, tutoring, curriculum for home and self-study, distance learning and special education therapies.
Nevada’s ESA program is modeled off of a similar program in Arizona. Nearly 20 years ago, Arizona made educational choice a pillar of its education reform efforts with the adoption of a robust charter school law, two scholarship tuition tax-credit programs that help families pay for private school tuition, and ultimately an ESA program that allows families to individually tailor their children’s educational program.
And what does Arizona have to show for it? In 2015, Arizona led the nation in academic gains on the Nation’s Report Card on K-12 academic progress. The Grand Canyon State’s eighth-graders ranked third in reading progress and first in mathematics progress. No other state rivaled those gains.
Will Nevada reap similar rewards by embracing parental choice in education? Not if the ACLU of Nevada or Educate Nevada Now has anything to say about it. Both groups filed lawsuits asking the courts to declare the ESA program unconstitutional.
The ACLU focuses its arguments on the fact that parents are allowed to use their students’ ESA funds to pay for tuition at religious schools. It claims this is a violation of the Nevada Constitution’s prohibition on public funds being used “for sectarian purpose.” Both the ACLU and ENN assert that the state Constitution’s requirement that the Legislature provide for a uniform system of public schools prohibits lawmakers from offering families additional educational options.
But those who stand to benefit the most from the ESA program — parents and students who have found that the public education system’s one-size-fits-all approach does not work for them — argue that the ESA program serves educational, not sectarian, purposes and that prohibiting families from using their ESA funds at religious schools would amount to unconstitutional discrimination against religion.
Nothing in Nevada’s Constitution suggests the framers intended to constrain the Legislature’s ability to adopt sensible reforms. Rather, the Constitution encourages the Legislature to promote education “by all suitable means.”
The Nevada Supreme Court will hear arguments in both cases on Friday. Fittingly, July 29 is Milton Friedman Legacy Day. Friedman was one of the nation’s pre-eminent proponents of educational choice programs. He dedicated his life to making the American Dream a reality for all people.
The Nevada Supreme Court has a historic opportunity to ensure that Nevada parents will be free to choose how and where their children are educated.
Tim Keller is a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. He represents five families who are defending Nevada’s ESA program before the Nevada Supreme Court.