In a short brief, the National Education Association concisely defines Education Savings Accounts—the kind of school voucher program that was found unconstitutional by the Nevada Supreme Court last week:
“Education Savings Accounts (ESA) are the latest trend in publicly subsidized private school education… (T)he common factor is that these programs pay parents all or a large portion of the money the state would otherwise have spent to educate their children in exchange for an agreement to forego their right to a public education. Funds deposited into such accounts may be used for any number of expenses, including private school tuition, fees, textbooks; tutoring and test prep; homeschooling curriculum and supplemental materials; special instruction and therapeutic services; transportation; and management fees. These programs also permit parents to roll over unused funds for use in subsequent years and to invest a portion of the funds into college savings plans.”
Education Savings Accounts are advocated by the American Federation for Children (Betsy DeVos’s organization) and the Friedman Foundation. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has a model Education Savings Account bill ready to be introduced in any state legislature. (If you are unfamiliar with ALEC, check out this post.) As of 2015, NEA reported that five states—Arizona, Florida, Nevada, Mississippi and Tennessee—had passed legislation to establish Education Savings Accounts.
Nevada’s program was said to be the most radical. In June of 2015, after Nevada’s law was passed, Lyndsey Layton and Emma Brown reported for the Washington Post: “Starting next school year, any parent in Nevada can pull a child from the state’s public schools and take tax dollars with them, giving families the option to use public money to pay for private or parochial school or even for home schooling… Nevada’s law is singular because all of the state’s 450,000 K-12 public school children—regardless of income—are eligible to take the money to whatever school they choose.” While most voucher programs are designed for poor and special needs students, every student in Nevada was going to be able to take $5,100 (or $5,710 for special education students) and use the money for her or his parents’ choice of educational services. The only demand: the student must have been enrolled in a public school for at least 100 days in order to qualify.
Of course, a big problem loomed: this plan was guaranteed to break the public education budget of the state and to destroy the public schools. The program was never fully implemented, as legal challenges were immediately filed, although the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports that 8,000 families had applied to participate.
And in its decision last week, the Nevada Supreme Court found the program’s funding, not the program itself, unconstitutional. By denying the program’s funding, however, the supreme court’s decision will effectively end the program. The Education Law Center, part of the pro-bono legal team in this case, commented on the significance of the Nevada Supreme Court’s decision: “The Court’s ruling makes clear that the Nevada Legislature violated a constitutional prohibition against the use of public education funding for any purpose other than the operation of the public schools. The ESA voucher program would have diverted funds from the public schools for private education expenditures. This decision strikes at the heart of the ESA voucher program, which was designed to remove significant amounts of funding from public school budgets to pay for private school tuition and other expenses, even for the wealthy. The court’s sweeping ruling permanently blocks the program from being implemented in the future.”
Supporters of Nevada’s Education Savings Account program have pledged to find another funding mechanism. They have explained that the court did not specifically find Education Savings Accounts unconstitutional and instead merely rejected the way Nevada funded the program. For the program to be resurrected at this point, Nevada’s legislature would have to create a funding stream entirely separate from Nevada’s education budget for this particular program.
What is clear is that with support from far right advocates and even a model bill from ALEC, other state legislatures will be introducing plans for Education Savings Accounts. And not all state constitutions have specific language prohibiting the diversion of state education funds away from the public schools.