There are now two lawsuits filed against the “Education Savings Account” law enacted by the last session of Nevada’s Assembled Wisdom. The first came late last month from the ACLU, and now a second comes from parents who are disturbed that the law takes revenue collected for public education and diverts it to private and religious schools.
“The lawsuit filed Wednesday claims ESAs violate the state constitution by diverting funds “exclusively” meant for public schools to private schools and other private expenses. It also argues the ESA bill undercuts funding for public schools to a less-than-sufficient level and does not mandate private schools to follow the same non-discrimination and accountability rules that state law requires of public schools.
The lawsuit includes a request for a judge to permanently block the Nevada treasurer’s office from implementing the ESA program, according to a news release.” [LVRJ]
The notion that private is always better than public seems to undergird the assumptions of the proponents of public support for private education. There are several streams that converge into this ideological river, some stronger than others. Some relevant to the issues at hand, and others less so. The arguments are worth exploring.
Proponents of the measure argue that since it’s the parents who make the funding request from the State Treasurer’s office, they have every right to make the diversion. There’s a slippery slope question herein: Does an individual have the right to request the diversion of public funds for the benefit of a private enterprise?
For the sake of the general argument, let’s assume that we are not talking about schools in particular, but any state or local function. A hypothetical might be illustrative, if not analogously probative – there is a reservoir stocked with fish by the Nevada Department of Wildlife, subsidized from about $231 million is expended in total on “fisheries management.” [NDW pdf] The sale of Trout Stamps brings in about $650,000 annually. [NDW pdf] Approximately 1% of Nevada’s Department of Wildlife budget comes from the General Fund, and 2% from other state sources. 86% of the budget comes from wildlife fees and grants. Those fees include fishing licenses. A fishing license costs $13, and the Trout Stamp adds another $10 to the total. Now, imagine an enterprise in close proximity to our hypothetical reservoir which charges admissions and fees to fish in the waters of its reservoir; no state license or special stamps required.
May a individual who doesn’t want to fish in public waters get $23 returned to a “fishing savings account” because he or she doesn’t want to fish in the public reservoir, and prefers to engage in that recreational activity on private lands, under private control? Taxes and fees are combined to form the revenue base of the Department of Wildlife, so what is the justification for diverting funds from the Department of Wildlife back to those who do not wish to utilize its services?
We might apply the same analogy to other services like local libraries? If a subscription library were to be established could local residents request a voucher for funds to subsidize their fees to the subscription library? Could local residents request vouchers to reduce the burden for their payments to use private parks and pools? May a local resident demand a voucher from a county government which collects property taxes, a portion of which are allocated to the operation of a hospital, if the resident chooses not to use the services of that local hospital? Might a resident who pays for private security request a voucher for a “protection savings account” to subsidize his or her fees to the private security firm from taxes collected to finance the local law enforcement agencies?
There’s a tricky precedent here in the form of the “individual choice” argument. The implications go far beyond the funding of private or parochial education, and range from the relatively minor (such as our fishing example) to the more serious (such as the public subsidies for public health or public safety services.) Extrapolating this precedent could yield a chaotic system in which each individual is only obligated to pay for the “things” he or she personally wants.
The Grass Is Greener
The “School Choice” argument has been framed as one of allowing parents to choose between the public and private system, with the private or charter schools held to be superior. This argument branches out into several other strands. In strand one, the question arises: Should public funds be used for the inculcation of religious ideals and dogma?
Article II of the Nevada Constitution is clear on this subject. “The legislature shall provide for a uniform system of common schools, by which a school shall be established and maintained in each school district at least six months in every year, and any school district which shall allow instruction of a sectarian character therein may be deprived of its proportion of the interest of the public school fund during such neglect or infraction, and the legislature may pass such laws as will tend to secure a general attendance of the children in each school district upon said public schools.” Art II, Section 2 (emphasis added)
Sections 9 and 10 are equally exclusive: “No sectarian instruction shall be imparted or tolerated in any school or University that may be established under this Constitution.” And, “No public funds of any kind or character whatever, State, County or Municipal, shall be used for sectarian purpose.”
When the topic comes up three times in one brief segment of the State Constitution, we have to believe that those who crafted the document were serious about the subject. So, when Bishop Gorman High School schedules Mass during the school day, would this violate the funding proscriptions in Article II of the State Constitution? The answer seems clear in Section Ten. NO public funds of any kind or character whatever….” Would this proscription also apply to the Southern Baptist Academy (K-12) online home schooling curricula? Most likely.
Strand Two assumes parents want to make the best choices for their children, while the state has an obligation to create a “uniform system of common schools.” And at this point the categorization gets complicated. There are parochial schools which are required to accept the children of any member of the parish. There are also parochial schools, such as Bishop Manogue in Reno, NV which offer applications including recommendations from at least two teachers (math and English), and high school placement test results. We should probably guess that those scoring higher will swim faster in the decision pools. The Meadows is a non-sectarian school in Las Vegas, and its exclusivity is emphasized by the $15,500 to $24,025 tuition fees. Neither exclusive (as opposed to totally inclusive) schools such as Bishop Manogue or The Meadows quite constitutes a “common” (as in totally inclusive) school. Now, does a voucher – in the form of an ESA – violate the provisions of the State Constitution that revenue collected for educational purposes be used for schools which are not part of a “uniform system of common schools ” and really don’t intend to be?
Strand Three raises other categorical questions, such as when are other educational alternatives to be considered part of a “uniform system of common schools?” For example, there are three forms of charter schools in Nevada depending on their sponsorship: District, University/College, and those approved by the State Public Charter School Authority. The latter category gets us into some Alphabet Soup. A private charter hires an ESP (Educational Service Provider) to handle day to day operations, and this management comes in two forms, the CMO and the EMO. (Charter Management Organization, and Educational Management Organization) The EMO’s are more often those corporations which can afford to purchase school facilities. Once the Alphabet Soup is sorted, it’s easier to examine the program management to see if it fits the template of a school’s definition of an institution fitting into a framework of “a uniform system of common schools.”
The extensive provisions of NRS 386 on Charter Schools should give some assurance of public accountability. There is an annual report from the Sponsor NRS 386.610: For each charter school that it sponsors with a written charter, an evaluation of the progress of each such charter school in achieving the educational goals and objectives of the written charter. And, For each charter school that it sponsors with a charter contract, a summary evaluating the academic, financial and organizational performance of the charter school, as measured by the performance indicators, measures and metrics set forth in the performance framework for the charter school. Three consecutive years of underperformance and determined by the CMO/EMO evaluation standards, and they’re out.
Not surprisingly, most of the Nevada charter schools are located in the Las Vegas suburban area. Nor is it any great surprise that the ethnicity of 61.61% of the state charters is White, as compared to 35.98% statewide, and while the composition of public schools is about 40.56% Hispanic, the state charters enroll only 16.11% of that student population subset. [NVReport Card] Surely, schools part of a “uniform system of common schools” would have enrollment statistics which better mirror those of the public schools?
Thus, the question: If a school, while adhering to the testing regime of the State, isn’t representative of the enrollment of the “common schools” using even the most broad statewide description, does it qualify for public funding for its operations? And, may a school, with the permission of the state, expend public funds if it fails to offer the same programs for special students as are required in the public schools? In other words, do we have one system of common schools or two?
Heaven forbid I’m bashing private schooling – I’m one of its products. However, I am also one who believes that private schooling is a choice, a choice made by parents who don’t want to avail themselves of the choice to send the kids to the public school. Taxes are paid into state and local coffers for the maintenance of “a uniform system of common schools,” so that every other youngster in town who isn’t a parish member or having the luck to be born to parents who can afford private education, isn’t denied schooling. The passage of the ESA legislation simply means I don’t have the choice NOT to pay for someone else’s choice to attend a private school.