Vouchers Aren’t the Answer

Republican legislators need a history lesson when it comes to education

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Earlier this year, Nevada’s Republican legislators backed school vouchers and ignored our state Constitution to do it.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued, arguing that the State can’t just give money to parents for private schools because that violates the Nevada Constitution’s Article XI, Section 10, which says: “No public money to be used for sectarian purposes. No public funds of any kind or character whatever, State, County or Municipal, shall be used for sectarian purpose.” A group of parents added a second lawsuit emphasizing an earlier section’s requirement of a uniform system of common schools, which the voucher law guts by providing money that could be used on unregulated schools.

It’s easy for the plan’s defenders to attack Democrats and liberals, whom they conflate. Supporters of these vouchers have said that their opponents are picking nits; politically, they are in thrall to teachers unions; and, historically, they are on the wrong side. Their attacks are as silly as their justifications.

Law. Republicans and libertarians say the state isn’t funding sectarian education because although the legislature appropriates the money, the parents get it, then decide how to spend it. Therefore, the state isn’t involved because the money belongs to the parents—except they are mandated to spend it on education, meaning the state is involved.

They might consult the anti-racketeering statute that enabled federal prosecutors to target not just the hit man who pulled the trigger but the mob boss who gave the order himself or through intermediaries. If you didn’t personally violate the law but made the violation possible, you still might have some connection to what happened.

Politics. Voucher supporters supposedly want every taxpayer dime accounted for. But since they want to give money and power to the people to improve education, let’s tell, say, a UNLV history professor, “You get a state salary, but here’s $5,000 more in state money. Spend it however you want to help your teaching and research.” Surely that professor wouldn’t suddenly change his specialization from Nevada to Hawaii (Aloha!). But the same people who condemn government “giveaways” in general say it’s fine to give parents money to send their children out of the public school system and into any fly-by-night “education” scam.

And this money is under the control of State Treasurer Dan Schwartz, who fought Governor Brian Sandoval’s tax policies, issued his own laughably inept state budget and hired state GOP head Michael McDonald for a nearly six-figure state job doing … something, but no one is sure what. It’s like letting Bill Clinton run a monastery.

Nor do Republicans know much about teachers and their union. Membership is dropping, as the Las Vegas Review-Journal recently reported. And if they think all teachers automatically vote Democratic, they haven’t talked to any teachers. If Republicans wanted to reform education, they might change the certification process to emphasize content areas and deemphasize education courses. They might let the teachers have more of a say in how schools are run and what policies the State pursues. But why empower those people?

History. The offending section of the Nevada Constitution was part of a national effort in the 1870s and 1880s to pass the Blaine Amendment, which was anti-Catholic and targeted Catholic education. Voucher supporters wonder how liberals could attach themselves to a law driven by bigotry.

Maybe the same way we all profess respect for a U.S. Constitution that originally deemed African-Americans three-fifths of a person but changed with a constitutional amendment resulting from a Civil War. Blaine was a Republican. So was President Ulysses Grant, who suggested the amendment. So were two of the three Nevada Supreme Court justices who unanimously ruled in Nevada Orphan Asylum v. Hallock in 1882 against funding sectarian education. Naturally, all Republicans supporting vouchers will change their party affiliation.

It gets better. Rejecting same-sex marriage, Republicans claimed the people rather than the courts should decide. In 1880, the amendment the Hallock case upheld passed 14, 216-672. The people spoke and as conservatives always tell us, they knew better in the old days.

History, politics, law and education are all complicated, so much so that in a Nevada Law Journal article in 2002, the co-authors said the issue is unclear but “the most workable view of the Nevada Constitution” is that Article XI and the document’s guarantee of “liberty of conscience” mean “Nevada’s provisions are largely coextensive with federal protections found in the First and 14th Amendments.” One of those authors was Jay Bybee, then a UNLV law professor, later the federal official who signed off on the Bush administration using torture, and now a U.S. Ninth Circuit judge. Complicated, indeed, especially if you want to spend taxpayer money illegally.

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