Op-Ed: Voucher proposal has a high hurdle to jump

Posted on January 10, 2011 In No categories

The following op ed was written by Howie Beigelman, OU Deputy Director of Public Policy for the Reno Gazette Journal on January 9, 2011:

Voucher Proposal Has a High Hurdle to Jump

Since releasing his education policy paper in June, Gov. Brian Sandoval made no secret of his desire to effect wholesale education reform. While the white paper laid out ideas on tenure, accountability, charter schools and choice, his proposal is bolder than we thought.

Any education reform in Nevada that includes school choice is constrained by two key obstacles.

It’s logistically difficult — though not illegal or impossible — for Nevada to copy reformers in other states and avoid legal and political challenge to direct aid to private schools: tax credits. Such programs (often also open to public schools) are funded through private donations. Donors then claim a tax credit on their corporate or personal taxes.

Neighboring Arizona enacted the nation’s first tax credit program in 1997. One of Arizona’s programs is now before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court’s ruling will bring clarity and finality to First Amendment questions regarding such programs. Assuming their constitutionality, there remains the practical question of what tax to credit for donations: Nevada has no personal or corporate tax.

Gov. Sandoval instead suggests enacting a voucher program. But that still leaves obstacle No. 2: the state’s constitution. The constitution itself, with its extraordinarily strict “Blaine” amendment forbidding public funds for sectarian purposes is obstacle enough. Add that Nevada’s Supreme Court has one (from 1882) ruling — an extremely strict one. That, with several cautious opinions by the state’s 20th century-era attorneys general, is enough to suggest this conversation has ended before it began.

The Nevada Constitution, while an insurmountable barrier as it stands now, is also the most amenable. The governor, a former federal judge, knows this. He argues the way forward for education reform is a constitutional amendment overturning Blaine.

Amending Blaine out serves a broader purpose, too. Thirty-nine state constitutions (and the District of Columbia) have some form of these “no aid” to sectarian institutions provisions. James Blaine, now a historical footnote, was a 19th century Maine congressman who tied his unsuccessful presidential ambitions to similarly amending the U.S. Constitution. In Nevada, the Blaine amendment has made state aid illegal even for religiously run orphanages. It’s past time this unseemly amendment and its quasi-legalization of religious bigotry be consigned with Mr. Blaine to historical trivia.

Writing Blaine out of the state’s legal landscape is a lengthy five-year process that, when complete, will remove any constitutional question as to the appropriateness of choice programs.

That leaves, or rather returns, education issues squarely to the policy arena, where they belong. Let supporters and opponents of education reform debate the merits of policies keeping children in failing schools or assigning them a school based on zip code.

Education issues should turn on what’s best for children and families, not what is stamped by a court as constitutionally kosher. Education policy isn’t for judges to determine; it’s for policy makers, elected officials and the residents of Nevada to decide.

Gov. Sandoval, the former judge, knows this, too. We couldn’t agree more.

Posted by IPA Staff