PAC asks Nevada Supreme Court for a chance to move forward with school voucher initiative
A political action committee’s bid to create a voucher-style education program through the ballot lies in the hands of the Nevada Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments on the matter Thursday afternoon.
The journey began in late January when the PAC — Education Freedom for Nevada — filed both a statutory and constitutional initiative with the secretary of state’s office. The initiatives sought to revive education savings accounts that would allow parents to access state funds to pay for educational environments or services outside the public school system.
But the PAC’s attempt quickly ran into a legal battle. Beverly Rogers and Rory Reid of the arts and education-oriented Rogers Foundation filed lawsuits three weeks later to shut down what they described as “a voucher scheme that hurts public schools, promotes discrimination and ignores accountability.”
In April, a senior judge in Carson City District Court struck down both initiative attempts, saying they could create massive unfunded mandates. Education Freedom for Nevada appealed the lower court’s decision about the constitutional initiative.
On Thursday, Jason Guinasso, the PAC’s attorney, was asked by justices on the high court whether the initiative would take funds away from public schools, as the constitutional petition’s description of effect (a 200-word description included on signature forms for the initiative) doesn’t elaborate where the funds for the “education freedom account” program would originate.
Guinasso told the court the money would come from the state’s Distributive School Account, a primary funding source for Nevada schools, He argued the petition won’t be an unfunded mandate because those funds “follow the student”.
He went on to say the petition’s 198-word description spells out the minimum impact funding the program would have: “a tax increase or reduction of government services.” But he cautioned the court against dwelling too much on those hypotheticals right now.
“Our focus at this stage is to have a 200-word description that informs a petition signer of what we're intending to amend to the Constitution, and how that goal … is to be accomplished,” he said. “It's not to articulate every policy pro and con to this, including how much funding will be taken from one pot to find another pot. That's for later.”
That explanation didn’t sit well with Bradley Schrager, the attorney representing the Rogers Foundation plaintiffs. He maintains the petition would be an unfunded mandate because it doesn’t include the tax necessary to create a revenue stream for the program.
“You don't get to, by initiative, dig a hole in the budget, and then walk away and leave someone else to have to fill it,” Schrager said.
Schrager said that is a violation of the Nevada Constitution, which prohibits “the proposal of any statute or statutory amendment which makes an appropriation or otherwise requires the expenditure of money, unless such statute or amendment also imposes a sufficient tax, not prohibited by the Constitution, or otherwise constitutionally provides for raising the necessary revenue.”
He argued that article of the Constitution should apply to both statutory initiatives, which change Nevada law, and constitutional initiatives, which amend the Nevada Constitution.
“You should not be able to do by constitutional initiative that which you specifically cannot do, for very clear and important reasons, by statutory initiative,” he said.
The mere existence of the initiatives fanned flames, with Republicans arguing it would expand parental choice while spurring competition and innovation in the education sector. Democrats, on the other hand, have opposed such programs and argued that they siphon money away from public schools, hurting the most vulnerable students.
Erin Phillips, co-founder and president of the advocacy organization Power2Parent, serves as the chairwoman of the PAC backing the voucher attempt. When the initiatives were filed, she said the so-called “education freedom accounts” were “needed now in Nevada more than ever” given ongoing K-12 education challenges exacerbated by pandemic-related learning disruptions.
A news release put out by the PAC on Thursday alleged that “well-funded organizations with direct ties to Harry Reid and liberal donors are working to suppress the voters’ rights to direct democracy.”
Rory Reid is the son of the politically powerful former U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, who died in late December.
“For parents, however, education isn’t a political issue — it’s personal,” Phillips said in a statement. “And that’s why it’s so important we continue to work to get this issue on the ballot. Parents, families, and voters — not special interest groups with deep political ties — deserve to have their voices heard in November.”
The court did not immediately rule on this case, but even if it sides with the PAC, it’s not clear whether the group has at least the 140,777 valid signatures needed from registered Nevada voters, including at least 35,195 within each of the state’s four congressional districts, to submit to the secretary of state’s office by the June 29 deadline.
Guinasso declined to say how many signatures the PAC had gathered before it ceased collecting signatures after the injunction was entered, or whether he thinks the PAC has a chance to gather the needed signatures by the deadline. A spokesperson for Power2Parent didn’t respond to a request for comment on those questions.
“What we are here for is to ask for a chance,” Guinasso said. “If this court gives us the relief that we're asking for, we'll have that chance now.”
And even if the PAC is unable to get the necessary signatures, Guinasso said, a court ruling in the group’s favor would leave the door open to try again with court-approved language for a petition in the future.