What Nevada’s education system needs the most, it won’t be getting this legislative cycle.
What advocates have long wanted most is to see significant increases in funding. But despite bold, blue promises made by the eventual victors of the most recent election cycle, education advocates today have tapered expectations on what the 2019 Legislature will actually deliver.
Advocates suggest that, at best, lawmakers could draft a roadmap that gets the K-12 education system to adequate funding levels — eventually. At worst, lawmakers could force education groups to infight over the reslicing of a funding pie they have long been told is simply too small to feed everyone at the table.
“We’ve heard from the governor and Legislature there’s not going to be additional revenue,” says Michelle Booth, communications director at Educate Nevada Now, a Rogers Foundation-funded policy group. “It’s concerning, especially when it’s been proven time and time again that additional funds are needed.”
An oft-cited study commissioned by the Legislature and released last year determined that “adequate funding” would be $9,238 per pupil. Current funding is $5,897 per pupil. A jump to the recommended base level funding equates to more than $3 billion in additional funding needed annually.
Nobody expects that to happen overnight.
Gov. Steve Sisolak’s budget calls for raising per-pupil funding to $6,052 next year and $6,116 the following year — far short of that $9,238 benchmark. State Sen. Mo Dennis is leading efforts to revise the five-decades-old funding formula, known as The Nevada Plan. No draft has been introduced but it is expected before filing deadlines later this month.
One thing is clear. As Clark County Education Association Executive Director John Vellardita puts it: “There’s no billion-dollar solution coming.”
‘We cannot just redivide the pie’
With that established, the question advocates have now is whether Nevada is willing to commit itself to getting to that goal eventually, and what public school districts can do in the meantime to stave off annual budget shortfalls, growing teacher unrest and academic performance issues in some of their schools.
Booth says the Legislature could set target dates or goals for reaching adequate base-level funding levels — 10 years, 12 years, or rising by a certain percentage every year. Other states have taken that approach when overhauling their funding formulas.
“We’d like there to be a downpayment to prove they are serious,” she adds. “Show a commitment to getting there.”
CCEA, the collective bargaining group for educators within Clark County School District, is hoping to see progress on moving to weighted funding — meaning that students in categories that require additional educational resources (English language learners, individualized education plans, gifted and talented education) would receive additional money on top of the base per-pupil funding. Currently, all students are funded equally.
A full weighted funding formula would be too costly to implement, says Vellardita, but the state could take steps to move in that direction incrementally. The state could change the structure of its categorical funding programs. Categorical funding is those programs (like Zoom Schools) that provide additional funding to schools with high percentages of those student groups that require additional resources. Vellardita argues those dollars should follow individual students to their various schools because it would reach a greater percentage of the students it intends to.
Other education groups say they are not against the idea of a weighted funding formula but suspect it would be used this legislative cycle at the expense of smaller rural school districts.
“We have concerns that revisions would not actually be helping anyone other than CCSD,” says Anna Slighting, the policy director for HOPE For Nevada, an education advocacy organization. “We cannot just redivide the pie. We need to rewrite the formula and increase funding. It can’t be one or the other.”
HOPE, which stands for Honoring Our Public Education, wants to see some kind of “framework” that moves the state toward a revised funding formula and increases revenue for education. However, they are acutely aware that holding politicians accountable to any kind of framework over time is a gamble.
Given the two-year legislative cycle and the knowledge the capital could swing red again during the next election, long-term proposals and plans can and often are easily undone in future sessions. (See: Nevada Republicans plans for “school choice” reform.)
Slighting notes there is one option that hasn’t yet been explored in Nevada.
“Litigation has come into play in many other states because the judicial system can provide framework and accountability,” she says.
The Center for Educational Equity explains there are at least a dozen lawsuits against states pending in courts across the country, with plaintiffs arguing “there is a constitutional right to an adequate education and that the state’s current education-finance system is violating that right.”
Adds Slighting, “That is always in the back of our minds.”
‘We will get this problem solved’
Democrats campaigned hard on education issues. The party’s gubernatorial primary pitted a former K-12 teacher against a former higher education regent, with the latter promising to donate his annual salary to education nonprofits until public schools are “turned around.”
As quoted in The Nevada Independent, then-candidate Sisolak said early last year: “So as governor of Nevada, I will not take a salary until our schools are back on track. Instead, until we get this problem solved, I will donate my salary to nonprofits that help support educators and students in and out of the classrooms — and mark my words, we will get this problem solved.”
Sisolak is on record calling the funding formula outdated, but he has never fully detailed how he believes it could be fixed. His comments on the state budget, however, do appear to fly in the face of what advocates believe is a key component of fixing the formula.
The governor has said there is no need for additional funding beyond what’s already projected. During his state of the state speech, he emphasised this, saying his budget “is presented without any new taxes. Let me say that again. This balanced budget does not contain any new taxes.”
In that same speech, the governor promised educators a 3 percent raise. The mechanics of how that would be implemented are still unclear.
Booth from Educate Nevada Now says that concrete plans get funding to adequate levels is the top priority. Addressing anything else is merely kicking the can down the road.
Similarly, legislative attempts to address other issues in education — restorative justice instead of suspensions and expulsions, cop on every campus, video cameras recording special education classrooms — are seen by some advocates as window dressings on a foreclosed house. However well intentioned they may be, they all come with a financial cost that is either unfunded or involving funds that might better be used to address the chronic, underlying issues.
“We’ve seen it every year,” she says. “When teachers get a raise, class sizes go up. We’re talking cost-of-living raise, not a bonus. Their class sizes go up. In order to provide we have to cut in another area. That’s not fair.”
“Are they going to continue to rob Peter to pay Paul?”
Slighting says HOPE doesn’t want education infighting — rural versus urban, class sizes versus teacher salaries. They also don’t want education victories to come at the expense of other statewide issues like Medicaid that also have funding issues. For that to happen, new revenue streams are needed, but HOPE is hesitant to tie itself to any specific proposal to bring in new revenue.
“That’s the legislators’ job,” she says. “I hope they find new revenue. Whatever it may be. We want to leave no stone unturned.”
CCEA has been less reserved. Back in August, in anticipation of the legislative session, they released a white paper arguing that counties should be allowed to create additional revenue that supplements state funding. “We believe Nevada’s students can’t wait for a lengthy and expensive overhaul of the Nevada Plan,” the paper stated.
That proposal has not gained much steam.
‘They’re not seeing results…’
Advocates believe the lack of political appetite for education funding is related to public distrust in how previous educational-funding efforts have been handled.
Another key legislative priority identified by the education coalition Fund Our Future is addressing the distribution of funds raised by the marijuana and room taxes. Voters supported a 3 percent room tax increase in 2009 and the legalization of marijuana in 2016 because they were sold as boosts to education. Advocates say legislators have used the former funds to supplant the state’s base education funding (known as as the distributive school account) rather than supplement it. Meanwhile, an expected 10 percent tax on retail marijuana sales was shifted by legislators from education to the rainy day fund as part of a messy political compromise last session.
Booth says reverting room tax revenue may have made sense in 2011 when the state and country were deep in recession, but should not still be happening.
Then-state Sen. Tick Segerblom introduced a bill during the 2017 Legislature to distribute revenue as originally intended, but the bill died in committee. Segerblom has since left the Legislature for the Clark County Commission.
Advocates have shopped the bill to sitting legislators but nobody has stepped up.
“We’ve asked but we haven’t heard from anybody willing to sponsor that bill,” says Booth. “They’d have to come up with that money.”
Booth believes those past promises have soured much of the public on the issue of funding education. She says they don’t realize that when adjusted for inflation education funding has remained flat, not risen.
“People have fatigue because they don’t understand that money doesn’t get to us,” she says. “They’re not seeing results because the schools aren’t seeing the results of those initiatives. People aren’t understanding that.”