Private school voucher debate poised for comeback, could be decided by voters

By: - February 2, 2022 6:16 am

Educational voucher programs divert public money to private schools or programs. (Photo: U.S. Department of Education)

Nevada’s never-implemented educational voucher program may be getting a second chance at life, if two newly filed ballot measures get their way.

Education Freedom for Nevada, a political action committee, on Monday filed a proposed constitutional amendment and a statutory initiative with the Nevada secretary of state’s office. Together, the proposals would create an educational voucher system similar to one passed by the GOP-controlled Nevada State Legislature in 2015. That law was never implemented because the Nevada Supreme Court ruled its funding mechanism unconstitutional, and it was later officially killed in dramatic fashion by the Democratically-controlled Legislature in 2019.

Erin Phillips, the co-founder of the nonprofit Power2Parent, is spearheading the Education Freedom PAC. She says the signature-driven effort is necessary because parents have increasingly lost faith in Nevada lawmakers’ handling of K-12 public education, especially in Southern Nevada where the Clark County School District saw a tumultuous year of distance learning followed by staff shortages.

“Never has there been a time that I can remember where parents have been more frustrated and more engaged in this idea of educational choice,” Phillips says. “This is a nonpartisan issue. Any parent on the street, regardless of political party, they just want the best education for their children.”

But legislative efforts around educational voucher programs, which divert public money to private schools or programs, and other privatization efforts that fall under the umbrella of education reform known as “school choice” have largely fallen on party lines.

“We’ve seen a highly partisan approach,” continued Phillips. “You talk to the average person and you talk to a politician and there’s a very big, stark contrast in what the positions are. I think that’s very frustrating, especially to the growing number of independents.”

If the required number of signatures are gathered by the state’s June deadline, Education Freedom’s constitutional amendment would appear before Nevada voters on the 2022 general election ballot in November. If voters approve it, the measure would appear again on the 2024 general election ballot. If passed a second time, it would be enshrined in the state constitution.

The constitutional amendment would require state lawmakers to create and maintain an education voucher program starting in the 2025-26 academic year. It leaves most of the details to the Legislature to set, except one major one: It requires the Legislature to fund the voucher program “in an amount comparable to the amount of funding that would otherwise be used to support the education of that child in the uniform system of common schools.”

Phillips said Education Freedom worked with attorney Josh Hicks at McDonald Carano to ensure their proposal addresses the legal issue that brought the 2015 education voucher program to a grinding halt.

That lawsuit, brought on by the nonprofit Educate Nevada Now, successfully challenged the constitutionality of the funding mechanism detailed in the 2015 voucher program bill. The state constitution requires the Legislature to fund “a uniform system of education” before anything else and the voucher program was diverting money from state education funds to private schools. With the funding mechanism ruled unconstitutional, the 2015 law was essentially rendered moot.

Republicans never got the chance to address that funding issue, as they lost control of the Legislature before the next regular session in 2017. Democrats left the program on the books but without funding, and it lay dormant.

Then, two years later, in 2019, Democrats gained control of the governorship. On the final day of that year’s legislative session, after no Republican state senator would cross party lines to vote alongside them on a bill expanding a commerce tax, Senate Democrats added an amendment that repealed the educational voucher program entirely. (Perhaps ironically, the tax expansion Democrats passed in that late-night bill was later ruled unconstitutional for not passing by a two-thirds majority. But the voucher program remained dead.)

The second Education Freedom measure filed Monday is a statutory initiative which details a specific type of educational voucher program. The proposal refers to the vouchers as “education freedom accounts” while the 2015 version called vouchers “educational savings accounts.” But the two programs are functionally very similar. The voucher program essentially allows parents to opt in and receive an amount equivalent to the guaranteed per-pupil funding that a public school would receive for enrolling their student, which they can use to pay for private school tuition.

If enough signatures are collected by a November deadline, that proposed educational voucher statute will be kicked to the 2023 Legislature, which will have the option to pass it into law as written. If they do not do so — either by voting against the bill or by taking no action at all — the measure automatically appears on the 2024 general election ballot to be voted on by Nevadans. It would only need to be approved by voters once.

The proposals together would give a major boost to the private school movement, which in 2015 praised Nevada for passing what was considered the most expansive voucher program in the country, but in more recent years has been kept at bay in Nevada by Democrats.

“If you have a bunch of parents who are making it clear based on signatures and votes that they want to have educational freedom for kids, it would be relatively unwise for legislators to not represent the wishes of those who elected them,” said Phillips.

She adds that the timing is right for the initiative.

“We tried to get this done in 2015. We tried to get more educational options. We’d be in a really different spot when the pandemic hit if we’d passed those. The majority of private schools stayed in-person. Families who homeschooled fared a lot better than those kids who were stuck at home (doing distance learning) with a jar of peanut butter hoping their internet worked for the day.”

Phillips says her PAC expects grassroots support from parents and will also have financial backing, though she declined to specify which donors have already committed.

Hours after the ballot measure filings were made public, Republican gubernatorial candidate Guy Nohra announced he contributed $25,000 to the PAC, saying in a statement,“Their effort to put education decisions in the hands of parents and allow public education dollars to follow the student, as opposed to those dollars getting lost in institutional bureaucracy, is one of the purest interpretations of a school choice option in Nevada today.”

The educational voucher ballot measures are likely to receive significant pushback from public education advocates.

“The first time voucher proponents tried this in Nevada, we found that a higher proportion of wealthy families applied for vouchers than those with lower income levels,” said Michelle Booth of Educate Nevada Now, the group that successfully fought the 2015 program. “Why would taxpayers want to subsidize the private schooling of the wealthy, when our public schools have been underfunded for years? Especially given the fact that private schools, unlike public schools, are not required to serve all students or provide transparency and accountability. It is just bad policy.”

Phillips and other voucher advocates push back against the characterization of their movement as being about privatization and defunding traditional school districts. They argue competition will spark innovation and make school districts perform better.

Now that the ballot measures have been filed with the Nevada Secretary of State, a 15-day window for legal challenges begins.

Once any legal challenges are settled, the organizing PAC may begin collecting signatures.

To qualify for the ballot, petitioners must obtain 140,777 valid signatures from registered Nevada voters, with at least 35,195 signatures coming from each of the state’s four congressional districts. That’s equivalent to 10% of the number of voters who voted during the 2020 general election.

Signatures for the proposed conditionals amendment must be delivered to their respective counties for verification by June 21. Signatures for the statutory initiative must be delivered by Nov. 23.

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April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus

April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, three children and one mutt.