The hullabaloo over Common Core is obscuring some major school choice flashpoints in the states. Consider Nevada, where the union for the public school status quo is suing to block revolutionary education savings accounts.
Earlier this summer Nevada Republicans established universal education savings accounts (ESAs), which allow all parents who withdraw their kids from public schools to spend state funds on private school tuition, textbooks, tutoring fees and special services. Jeb Bush last month praised Nevada’s ESAs as a model for “total voucherization,” which is scaring the unions silly.
Starting next year, parents who opt out of public schools can receive between 90% and 100% of the statewide average per-pupil allotment ($5,100 to $5,700) depending on their income. Unused funds can be rolled over for future expenses including college. According to the Friedman Foundation, ESAs will cover between 60% and 80% of the median tuition at private schools, many of which provide additional financial assistance.
Twenty-three states have enacted 48 private-school choice programs, but nearly all include income and eligibility caps. Four states other than Nevada—Arizona, Florida, Tennessee and Mississippi—offer ESAs that are limited to special needs or low-income students.
Unions are desperate to prevent Nevada’s model from spreading. They argue that giving all parents these educational options will destroy public schools, but the real point is to break up the union monopoly. Universal ESAs give all low and middle-income students the ability to escape failing schools, while providing enough funding to seed alternatives.
The American Civil Liberties Union last week took up the union water cannon. It argued in a lawsuit that ESAs violate the Nevada constitution’s ban on “public funds of any kind or character whatever, State, County or Municipal” being used for a “sectarian purpose” and undermine “the public school system that the State is constitutionally required to support.”
This is a legal Hail Mary. Dozens of state constitutions include these so-called Blaine amendments, which are a legacy of the anti-Catholic bigotry of the 19th century. Most state courts and the U.S. Supreme Court in its landmark 2011 ruling, Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn, have interpreted these prohibitions narrowly. The High Court ruled that tax credits to nonprofits that fund private school scholarships aren’t government expenditures.
Last year the Arizona Supreme Court upheld an appellate decision that ESAs are constitutional because they are “neutral in all respects toward religion” and direct “aid to a broad class of individuals without reference to religion.” What’s more, “the specified object of the ESA is the beneficiary families, not private or sectarian schools.”
The Institute for Justice, which helped defend Arizona’s ESAs and craft Nevada’s, notes that it is “the independent decision-making by parents that severs any link between church and state.” ESAs give “parents a genuine choice as to how to spend the money.” If ESAs are unconstitutional, then so are state Medicaid reimbursements to religiously affiliated hospitals.
It’s both a shame and reflection of modern liberal politics that the ACLU is teaming up with the teachers union to squash educational freedom.
Sept. 2, 2015