Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Case for Nevada's School Voucher Law

This past summer, the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) launched a law suit against Nevada’s newest school voucher law. A little while ago, I shared my thoughts on the Nevada School Voucher program (here). As Nevada high school graduate I grew up in private Christian school (PA Owens Christian Academy, Class of 2011) and I have seen first had the benefits in education private schools can render with respect to Nevada public schools. However, the opposition from ACLU is not that of a question of efficiency, but rather its constitutionality.
Nevada’s Constitution states that “No public funds of any kind or character whatever, State, County or Municipal, shall be used for sectarian purpose.” The law allows parents to utilize state funds to send their children to private schools, including religious affiliated schools. ACLU is adamant that Nevada’s school choice program violates this clause and is therefore unconstitutional. At first glance, it may appear that the voucher law violates this clause, if parents are allowed to send their children to religious affiliated, private schools. However, there may be a chance that the Nevada voucher program survives this challenge. In law there are two ways to interpret a statute: (1) plain meaning of the law or (2) the context surrounding the law when it was passed. Laws can be ambiguously written and therefore interpreted incorrectly as to how they apply in certain situations. When a judge or lawyer argues solely on the merits of the plain meaning of a law and ignore the context in which it was written, its jurisprudence can be threatened. To better explain this, I will demonstrate with a common example the ambiguities that can exist within this flawed view of legal reasoning.
The law of city X states that “there shall be no vehicles in the Greendale Park, whatsoever.” On June 1, 2009, Mrs. Parker brings her two year old son to Greendale Park to practice riding his tricycle. A city marshal issues her a citation for having a vehicle in the park, since according to that city’s laws; a tricycle is defined as a vehicle. Mrs. Parker goes to court to fight the fine. Her lawyer points out that while the plain ordinary meaning of the law does prohibit any vehicles in Greendale Park, the public records show that the reason that is law was passed was a former city council wanted to address gas emissions from cars in Greendale park in order to preserve its wildlife and plants. The judge agrees with the context of the law, determines that a tricycle in the park does not meet the reasoning behind this law, and nullifies the fine.
A similar and better detailed example is explained in Getting to Maybe and further explains the importance of the context of a law, not just its plain meaning. The arguments, so far, that have been expressed by ACLU address only the plain meaning of the textual structure of the Nevada Constitution. The context in which this constitutional clause was drafted has yet to be explored. While it may appear on the surface that this free-choice law may be unlawful, proponents on the other side of this law suit may have an opportunity to strongly combat the ACLU.

Furthermore, this law is crafted in a way to avoid constitutional violations in that the money used for this program goes directly to parents and it is their choice to use these funds at the school of their choosing. This transfer of funds calls into question if the money is still state money or if they are earmarked funds controlled by parents? Lastly, the law was passed to improve education, not to sponsor or favor any form of religion. Senator Scott Hammond (R), who sponsored this law, makes a compelling argument comparing the nature of this statute to the way Medicaid pays religious hospitals to care for patients (Las Vegas Sun, 2015).

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Nevada School Vouchers - My Thoughts

A lot of fuss has been made about the implementation of school voucher programs as a potential solution to woes of poor high school education. Namely, Nevada (ranked 47 out of 50 nationally) has entertained this approach during the 2015 Legislative session. Senate Bill 302 was passed by the Nevada state Legislature and signed into law by Governor Brian Sandoval this year (Huffington Post, 2014). It “authorizes $10.5 million in tax credits over the upcoming two-year budget cycle” for the use of up to $5,000 in state scholarships for parents to use to send their students to private school. You can read more about the bill here and here.

This free-choice approach, however, has been met with much opposition. Many local democratic representatives have opposed this law on the grounds of diminished uses of funds available for public schools. Some even offered arguments that such a program would only “subsidy” wealthy families in allowing them to send their children to private schools and further disparage the educational gap between low-income and high income (Las Vegas Sun, 2015). However, the most notable challenge is that of the law’s constitutionality. The American Civil Liberties Union recently filed a law suit against this law stating that the bill violates the Nevada Constitution - “No public funds of any kind or character whatever, State, County or Municipal, shall be used for sectarian purpose.” Critics believe that allowing such a law would be an unconstitutional use of public funds to send student to private Christian schools. Nevada Senator Scott Hammond (my state senate representative), who sponsored this bill, stated that funds for private school are for educational purposes stating that the law is analogous to Medicare funds being used to treat a patient at a Catholic/religious hospital. Read more here and here.

I am a supporter of school vouchers and I’m happy to see my state take an innovative approach to address the waning educational state of our schools. I grew up in a black, middle class family of six. While my parents made sacrifices to send me and my three younger siblings to private school, I am confident that with help from the state, it would have made my educational experience and overall quality of life much more fulfilling. Maybe my parents would not have had to work multiple jobs in order to meet tuition. Perhaps we could have had more disposable income to utilize. Often, I ponder how school vouchers could have made life different for friends and family whom I witnessed reap the bad fruits of the public schools system. I graduated Valedictorian from the PA Owens Christian Academy (school info here) in 2011 after spending my K-12 years in private Christian schools. As a college grad and prospective law school student, I look back at the impact a private Christian school education had on my life and hope that other minority and low-income students can have that same opportunity. Free-choice programs, like the Nevada school voucher law, can open a door for students to have access to a quality education that exceeds what Nevada public schools have to offer and is worth investing into. I’ll leave my thoughts off with this link to Brooking Institute Scholar, Matthews M. Chingos and his study of New York voucher program and the benefits it yields for minority student collegiate success. I hope Nevada’s voucher program can yield and exceed their success. (See here.)