Nevada Parents Stand Up for School Choice and Join Lawsuit to Defend ESA Program

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · September 17, 2015

Las Vegas, NV.—Today, a group of five Nevada families partnered with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to defend Nevada’s Education Savings Account (ESA) program against two lawsuits challenging its constitutionality. By formally intervening into the lawsuits, the families will ensure that the 450,000 students eligible for the program are represented as the lawsuits progress through the courts. The two lawsuits were filed by the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Nevada branch and Educate Nevada Now (ENN).

“Nevada’s school choice program is one of the largest, most innovative programs in the country, which is precisely why it has come under so much fire.” said IJ senior attorney Tim Keller. “It empowers parents and fosters healthy competition in the state’s education system.”

Under the new law, which doesn’t go into effect until 2016, families with children in public schools can opt out of the public school system and receive a flexible scholarship to use on a wide variety of educational services—including private school tuition, tutoring, or distance learning, among other other options. They can even take classes a la carte from public schools or pay for courses at community colleges. The program puts parents in the driver’s seat of their children’s education, and offers a multitude of choices to find the best fit for their kids.

The ACLU’s lawsuit argues that the newly-minted program furthers a religious or sectarian purpose because it allows parents to choose religious educational options for their children. But allowing parents to make the decision about where to educate their own children severs any link between church and state. The ENN lawsuit does not make any claims regarding religion. It argues that the public school system is the exclusive means of paying for education in Nevada, but there is no reason why families should not have more say over how their own tax dollars are spent, especially when it comes to something as crucial as their children’s education.

For families, ESAs will help their children escape Nevada’s overcrowded and inadequate public school system. Parents like our clients in this case have a variety of reasons for wanting choice:

  • Aurora Espinoza, a single mom who works a full‑time job to make ends meet, has two daughters who are trapped by their zip code in some of the worst public schools in the state.
  • Aimee and Heath Hairr have five adopted children. Their oldest, Nolan, was floundering in his public school. Nolan endured intense bullying, but his public school continuously failed to protect him. The Hairrs just want Nolan to have a safe learning environment and for their other children to have the same.
  • Lara Allen’s four children, all of whom are gifted and/or have special needs, need more than what the public schools can offer. Lara’s son Caleb told her after third grade that he had learned five things all year.
  • Liz Robbins has seven children, three of whom have a severe tissue disorder called EDS which requires constant medical attention. The frequent tests and invasive surgeries needed to manage EDS kept the two oldest affected children from regularly attending public school. Despite their need for this care, the public schools did not treat the resulting absences with compassion—even though her children had no trouble keeping up with their studies. Liz needs the ESA so she can design a quality education for her youngest EDS child, Dallin, who will likely miss a lot of school in the future.

“I want to be a part of Nevada’s new Education Savings Account program to help Dallin get the education he deserves,” Liz Robbins said of her son. “I hope to use the funds deposited in Dallin’s ESA to hire private tutors and customize his education however his health allows from day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year. ”

“Nevada’s education savings account program was carefully drafted to ensure compliance with the Nevada Constitution,” explained IJ Attorney Keith Diggs. “The program passes constitutional muster because it puts parents in charge of deciding where and how to educate their children while ensuring government officials remain completely neutral regarding matters of religion.”

In the past five years, IJ has successfully defended six school choice programs in five states. Those attempting to undermine school choice programs have traditionally argued on legal grounds that fail to hold up in court. It is not likely that these cases will be any more successful at limiting choice.

As in previous cases, IJ is prepared to meet any challenge in order to protect the options of parents and kids. That is why we have teamed up with Aimee, Aurora, Lara, Liz, and Jeff and Trina, to intervene in these two lawsuits and protect the ESA program.