Is 2019 School-District-Only Funding Law Consistent with NV’s Constitutional Requirements?

Public charter schools generally serve their students using fewer financial resources than traditional public schools operated by school districts. A Nevada law, which took effect earlier this summer, will have the effect of broadening this funding gap. Did it do so in conflict with provisions in Nevada’s constitution addressing public education?

SB551, the law passed in the final moments of the 2019 Legislative Session, includes $72 million in appropriated funding to Nevada school districts. The law did not include funding for the more than 42,000 students who attend state-authorized charter schools. For this reason, some have questioned whether the funding provision is in violation of the Uniformity Clause of the Nevada Constitution.

Among its numerous provisions, the new law (section 36.5) appropriated $72 million over two years from the State General Fund to the Account for Programs for Innovation and the Prevention of Remediation, “for the purpose of providing supplemental support to the operation of the school districts.” It delineates specific sums to be paid to each of Nevada’s 17 school districts, in general proportion to size of the student population, “for the purpose of providing supplemental support to the operation of the school districts.”

The section of Nevada’s constitution addressing education includes what is known as its uniformity clause for schools. Article 11, Section 2 of Nevada’s constitution, Uniform System of Common Schools, states, “The legislature shall provide for a uniform system of common schools….”

Nevada is among the states with the least history of court action public school funding systems – an observation from the Education Law Center and others which has garnered increased attention with the public education funding dialogues over the past year.

However, in the 1996 Schwartz v. Lopez case, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that this section of the Nevada Constitution, “is clearly directed at maintaining uniformity within the public school system,” and the funding for schools plays an important part in maintaining this uniformity.

In Nevada, while some public charter schools are operated by two school districts, most are under the supervision of the State Public Charter School Authority. Because SB551 provided funds for school districts but not for schools operated by the Authority, it would seem this may be in violation of the Uniformity Clause, as described in Schwartz v. Lopez.

Other sections of this law are already the focus of a lawsuit led by Senate Republicans over the question of whether its extension of a previously-expiring tax violated the constitutional requirement that tax increases be approved by a two-thirds of legislators.   Should Nevada’s Supreme Court rule in favor of that challenge, it is possible that the outcome could impact the law’s school funding provisions as well.

It also seems possible that if the $72 million funding only for school districts persists without challenge, that a precedent might be established with broader implications for future school funding laws.