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Nevada Fights for Private School Handouts

RENO, Nev. (CN) - Nevada's attorney general asked the state supreme to overturn an injunction preventing the state from handing out $100 million in tax money for parents to send their kids to private schools.

First District Judge James Wilson Jr. in Carson City enjoined the subsidies on Jan. 11, in one of three lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Nevada Senate Bill 302 , the Education Savings Account program.

The Legislature approved the bill in June last year and it took effect on Jan. 1, despite three pending lawsuits. S.B. 302 allowed the state to send $5,000 a year to parents for each child they place in a private school, at home or online, so long as the child at one time attended a public school for 100 days.

All three lawsuits challenged the constitutionality of the bill, as it allowed tax money to go to schools that discriminate for religious, racial, handicapped, indeed, any grounds.

Judge Wilson enjoined enforcement - and the money handout - in lead plaintiff Hellen Quan Lopez's case . The first legal challenge was filed by lead plaintiff Ruby Duncan , a grandmother and advocate for the poor who had a Las Vegas elementary school named in her honor in 2008.

More than 4,000 parents had applied for their $5,000 subsidies by the time Judge Wilson enjoined it.

On Friday, Attorney General Adam Laxalt appealed the preliminary injunction to the state supreme court.

"My office is working diligently so that parents can enjoy the genuine educational choice envisioned by lawmakers this past legislative session, and remains focused on resolving the matter as quickly as possible to provide families with the certainty they deserve. A ruling from the state Supreme Court will do just that," Laxalt said in a statement.

Backers of the program say it will improve education by, among other things, reducing class sizes.

This reasoning, however, neglects to account for lost federal funding, most of which comes in the form of Average Daily Attendance, or ADA money. ADA funding varies by state and district and is fiendishly difficult to pin down: Nevada's 200+ page annual reports on its schools report on the percentage of students who attend, but do not mention how much ADA money schools get from Washington.

Estimates from other states give a rough estimate of $28 per day per student. In other words, if a student misses a week of classes, federal ADA funding for his or her school will be reduced by $140.

So based on a 180-class-day school year, removing one student from a public school will cost his or her district $5,040 in federal ADA funding. Add Nevada's $5,000 handout under S.B. 302, public schools will lose more than $10,000 in funding for each student subsidized in a private or home school: more money than Nevada spends on each pupil in a public school.

Even without S.B. 302, Nevada ranks near the bottom in state spending on education.

Nevada public schools already are among the most poorly funded in the nation. A 2012 U.S. Census Bureau report, " Public Education Finances ," ranked Nevada 45th of the states in per pupil spending in public schools - $2,400 per student, or 22 percent of total funding, below the national average.

The Reno Gazette-Journal reported in 2014 that the state had fallen to 49th.

But private school advocates say many Nevada families need the program to keep their kids in good schools.

"Thousands of families who were depending on the education savings accounts to improve their children's lives ... were devastated by the decision," the Nevada Policy Research Institute said in a statement. The institute describes itself as a "free market think tank."

Clark County (Las Vegas) resident Zavia Norman, a mother of three, sued the state on Dec. 22, seeking declaratory relief that S.B. 302 is constitutional. Norman said in her complaint that she spends about $800 per month to put two of her three daughters through the Anderson Academy of Mathematics and Science. She says one daughter, a first-grader, is too shy in larger public school classes, and the smaller classes help her in school.

To pay the $800 monthly tuition, Norman says, she works two weekend and holiday shifts per month as a respiratory therapist at a Las Vegas hospital.

Norman says that if the Education Savings Accounts are not funded by February, she will have to pull her daughters out of the private school, where both are doing well and get individualized instruction, and put them back into public school, where both struggled.

Norman's co-plaintiff Glynis Gallegos makes a similar argument, saying her son struggled in public school, where he was incorrectly labeled a "non-native" English speaker due to being dropped off by Spanish-speaking relatives, failed the first grade, and struggled to learn math due to large classes whose teachers did not have time for individualized instruction.

Since enrolling her son in a private school last year, Gallegos says, he is doing much better and gets the one-on-one instruction he needs to succeed in school, but she will have to return him to a public school if the Education Savings Account program isn't funded.

The 4,100 parents who applied for their $5,000 handouts so far stood to get $20.5 million in state tax money - and would have cost Nevada schools another $20.6 million in ADA funding.

Nevada's 150+ private schools serve about 30,000 students, according to figures from the state and private school organizations. Fifty-three percent of them are religiously affiliated, overwhelmingly Christian. Were all their parents to get $5,000 subsidies, it would divert $151 million from public to private schools or home schools, and cost the state another $152 million in lost federal ADA funding.

The Legislature last year approved $2.2 billion in state education funding for the 2015-2017 budgets, or $1.1 billion a year. So S.B. 302, if allowed, would send 13.7 percent of the state's education budget to private schools.

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