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Lawsuits aim to halt ballot initiatives to create voucher-style education program

Jackie Valley
Jackie Valley
GovernmentK-12 Education
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An education advocacy group is trying to stop an effort to revive a voucher-style education  program in Nevada before the question ever reaches voters.

Beverly Rogers and Rory Reid, who serve as chair and chief executive officer, respectively, of The Rogers Foundation, filed the lawsuits Tuesday in Carson City District Court in a bid to shut down what they describe as “a voucher scheme that hurts public schools, promotes discrimination and ignores accountability.”

The litigation comes just three weeks after a political action committee called Education Freedom for Nevada filed both a statutory and constitutional initiatives with Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske’s office to create “education freedom accounts,” which would allow parents to access state funds to pay for educational environments or services outside the public school system. 

The lawsuits name Cegavske as the defendant, with Rogers’ challenging the statutory initiative and Reid’s going after the constitutional initiative. The Rogers Foundation is a Las Vegas-based charitable organization that focuses on education and powers Educate Nevada Now, a policy arm that advocates for equity and school funding.

In a release announcing the lawsuits, Rogers and Reid argue that if the initiatives were to succeed and create the voucher-style program, it could divert at least $300 million per year away from the public school system. That estimate is based on the number of 5- to 18-year-olds living in Nevada, per census data, who are not attending the state’s traditional public or charter schools, officials from The Rogers Foundation said. Pre-kindergarten and adult education students are excluded from the estimate.

The lawsuits are challenging each initiative’s 200-word “description of effect,” a brief summary of the measure included on signature-gathering forms. They also allege the initiatives create an “enormous price tag for the scheme [that] goes impermissibly unfunded.”

The PAC’s initiatives say the money filtered into the education freedom accounts would be comparable to the statewide base per-pupil funding that public schools receive. That figure is $6,890 this fiscal year.

Rogers offered a blunt assessment of what she perceives as an attempt to siphon money from an already underfunded public school system.

“Let’s be clear, we are not talking about school choice, we’re talking about the school’s choice to reject students because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, religious affiliation or lack thereof, or because they need additional resources to succeed,” Rogers said in a statement. “We support public schools because they serve all students.”

A voucher-style program with so-called education savings accounts (ESAs) sparked years of political fights in Nevada. The Legislature passed and then-Gov. Brian Sandoval signed a bill creating the ESA program in 2015. But a lawsuit challenged the program, and it ultimately went unfunded. The Nevada Supreme Court ruled the premise was constitutional but not the funding mechanism.

Pro bono attorneys carried the Lopez vs. Schwartz case, but The Rogers Foundation paid for filing and other legal administrative fees.

Nevada Freedom for Education is chaired by Erin Phillips, the co-founder and president of the advocacy organization Power2Parent. Phillips said litigation was expected and doesn’t deter the PAC’s mission.

“There will always be those who want to protect the status quo,” she said in a statement. “But, we are confident in the language and it is clear that Nevadans are ready for a fundamental change to our approach to education … We are looking forward to winning this lawsuit and moving on to the signature gathering phase.”

The PAC’s initiatives have the same purpose but provide two different pathways. If the constitutional initiative were to receive enough signatures by June 15, it would appear on the general election ballot in November. The statutory initiative, meanwhile, has a signature-gathering deadline of Nov. 23 — setting it up potentially to emerge as an issue during the 2023 legislative session. 

Either way, initiative backers need to collect at least 140,777 valid signatures from registered Nevada voters, including at least 35,195 within each of the state’s four congressional districts, to qualify the initiatives for the next step. Litigation often narrows the window of opportunity supporters have to gather the necessary signatures.

Challengers have vowed to prevent the initiatives from moving forward, arguing that they mislead the public as well as violate and misuse the initiative process.

“We’ve defeated vouchers before and we will do it again,” Rogers said in a statement. “I understand the frustration with our schools right now, but the solution is not to further deplete their resources or to fund a system that can pick and choose which kids they support.”

This story has been updated to include copies of the lawsuits.

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