Monday, Feb. 27, 2017 | 2 a.m.
No amount of public relations spin can bring Senate Bill 302, which authorized Education Savings Accounts (ESA) vouchers, back to life. ESAs are dead.
Last September, the Nevada Supreme Court unanimously struck down SB 302 as unconstitutional, siding with parents of public school students who challenged the controversial voucher law. SB 302 authorized the Nevada treasurer to take funding from Nevada public schools, estimated at $40 million in the first year alone, to pay for private and religious school tuition and other private education expenses. The justices ruled the voucher law violated the constitutional ban on using public school funding for any other purpose and ordered the program shut down.
A final order has been issued in the case, putting a permanent end to the voucher program under SB 302. The court order is clear and unequivocal: SB 302 is unconstitutional and can’t be implemented.
Yet, despite the court injunction, Treasurer Dan Schwartz, who was charged with administering the now-defunct voucher law, continues to act as though SB 302 is still on the books. In November, Schwartz brazenly announced his office was keeping the ESA program open. To this day, he continues to encourage new families to sign up. Buried on his website is the disclaimer that if you sign up, or have already signed up, no funding is available to actually pay for the vouchers.
The treasurer is defying the court order permanently blocking ESAs. He knows those families who have already applied won’t get a voucher. He also knows ESAs are not coming back. The entire structure of the SB 302 program relied on tapping into public school funding to pay for vouchers to families, regardless of need, even Nevada’s uber-rich. Without access to public school funding, the Legislature cannot revive ESAs.
Schwartz is doing a great disservice to the families he’s pitched to sign up for ESAs and to every Nevada resident and taxpayer. He is giving families the false hope that someday voucher payments might land in their accounts, and he is wasting public funds that residents pay through taxes on running an unconstitutional program.
From Day One, Schwartz has been the most ardent cheerleader for SB 302 vouchers. His decision to continue the illegal program may be his way of maintaining political pressure on lawmakers to give some money to the families that he has repeatedly assured would receive ESAs. Or he may be looking for a bailout for the $200,000 or more in tax dollars his office has already spent on the program — money he promised he would pay back from the 3 percent administration fee he would have received once ESAs got rolling.
Whatever his motivations, it’s time for the treasurer to come clean on ESAs. He needs to tell those families who have already applied, in no uncertain terms, they will not be receiving voucher funds now or at any time in the future. He must immediately stop taking applications so no new families are misled into believing they may someday get ESA payments deposited into their bank accounts.
It’s also time for Schwartz to stop wasting taxpayer money on administering a program permanently blocked by the Supreme Court. And he should make a full accounting to the Legislature of how much has been spent on vendor contracts, staff and other expenses related to program administration.
And just in case the treasurer still hasn’t gotten the message: ESAs are dead.
David Sciarra is executive director of the Education Law Center and a founding partner of Educate Nevada Now.