The Nevada Supreme Court building Monday, March 4, 2019.
Photo: David Calvert / The Nevada Independent
LAS VEGAS — A bid by an advocacy group to bring decisions about Nevada educational policy out of the Legislature and into the courts drew pointed questions Monday from the state Supreme Court.
Justices were asked to overrule a lower court judge's finding that the debate belongs in the state Senate and Assembly, not in a courtroom.
They didn't make an immediate ruling after lively arguments that included state Solicitor General Heidi Parry Stern saying that the state constitution wouldn't prohibit packing 60 students into a third-grade classroom.
Attorney Bradley Schrager, representing several parents backed by a group called Educate Nevada Now, pleaded with justices to let litigants sue to hold elected lawmakers accountable for unmet promises.
"This is a case about whether or not the resources that are provided to the schools ... are sufficient," Schrager told the justices in Las Vegas. He began his oral argument with a reference to "dismal truths about public education in Nevada."
Nevada's K-12 schools have long been at or near the bottom of national rankings in per-pupil spending, class size and student achievement. State lawmakers were told in March that it would cost about $800 million in new spending just to meet national student-to-teacher ratios.
The advocacy group is funded by the Rogers Foundation, a Las Vegas-based philanthropic organization founded by Jim Rogers, the late former Nevada media mogul and university chancellor, and his wife, Beverly Rogers.
"Without court intervention, the condition and quality of our schools will continue to decline, as they have for years," Educate Nevada Now said in a statement about the case.
Schrager told the justices the lawsuit and the appeal represented an effort to "revive the notion of a crisis ... and to employ new tools in this fight."
Carson City District Court Judge James Wilson threw out the lawsuit in October 2020, declining to rule whether the state Legislature violated constitutional requirements to provide resources for students to receive a "sufficient" and "basic" education and pointing to "plain language" of the state constitution.
Courts have no jurisdiction over legislative decisions about "the amount of money ... sufficient to fund the operation of the public schools," Wilson wrote, or about "what programs and processes to adopt in providing for a uniform system of public school(s)."
Money is just one resource, Schrager said before he was interrupted by Justice Douglas Herndon, who asked if money wasn't really the key issue.
The central questions in the lawsuit, Schrager conceded, are financing, political decisions by the Legislature and the doctrine of separation of governmental power between the legislative, judicial and executive branches of government.
"It isn't that we are asking the court to establish (school) standards," Schrager said, "but to instead to judicially manage the standards that the state itself has already set."
Stern found herself acknowledging the possibility of huge class sizes in response to a question about whether it would be constitutional if third-grade classes grew to 50 or 60 students.
"I do believe so. Yes," Stern said, adding that Wilson said in his ruling that when it comes to standards of education, "the language of the Nevada Constitution is aspirational."
"And there's no way to hold the government accountable for not meeting those standards?" Justice Elissa Cadish asked.
"In the judiciary? No," Stern replied. "Performance objectives are not constitutional requirements."
People vote to hold lawmakers accountable, the state attorney added, and letting them sue the Legislature would create an unmanageable "morass" of court challenges.
The court is expected to rule in the case, Shea vs. Nevada, in coming weeks.