School funding, a bipartisan absence of courage, and the CCEA

CCEA rally
CCEA Fund Our Schools Now rally on April 27, 2019. (Nevada Current file photo)

As Government teachers, we know how the system works. And as members of the Clark County Education Association (CCEA), it is our goal to put that knowledge into practice.

We belong to the largest union of educators in Nevada. CCEA represents over 18,000 people who educate our children in the Clark County School District. It is the job of our union to persuade lawmakers in Carson City to enact policies that benefit our students. This task became nearly impossible under the thumb of our former state affiliate. Sadly, they became an ATM machine for one party and in return extracted nothing of substance for public education. Under this tiresome arrangement, Democrats simply took our money and then forgot about us. This is why CCEA members finally cut the ties that bind and became an independent union in 2018.

The New CCEA is bipartisan. Today, we endorse both Democrats and Republicans who support our public schools. CCEA members after all do not fit neatly into one political party. The diversity of thought within our union is reflected on the committee of educators who decide who we endorse for political office. 

The New CCEA is pragmatic. We judge those we endorse based on their actions, not their party affiliation. What matters to educators in their classrooms are results that positively affect our students. As is the case with all relationships in politics, endorsements are only as permanent as the outcomes they generate. 

Unquestionably, the most important issue confronting the New CCEA is a lack of state funding for our students. Three consecutive academic studies have concluded that Nevada underfunds its public education system by over $1 billion each year. And what the coronavirus pandemic has exposed is both the economic and racial inequities that continue to plague our school district. For the educators organized into CCEA, how can we convince lawmakers to remedy this chronic lack of support for our students?

Nevadans have made it very difficult to raise any tax in our state. An amendment to the state constitution demands a two-thirds supermajority in both houses of the state Legislature to raise revenue. This high bar for any new tax is exactly why we need bipartisan support to raise funding for our students. It is hopelessly Utopian to expect tax-and-spend progressives to ever exercise a supermajority in Carson City where they could easily solve the problem of underfunded schools. Reality demands bipartisan compromise. 

The drastic cuts levied at public education that occurred during the first special session over the summer cannot exclusively be laid at the feet of Republican State Sen. Keith Pickard. Those cuts came from a budget proposal prepared by Democrat Steve Sisolak, who ran a campaign promising to be the “Education Governor.” The $156 million in cuts targeted our most vulnerable students: those who live in poverty and those learning the English language. Is this the best we could expect from the Democrat residing in the Governor’s Mansion for the first time this century?

CCEA moved heaven and earth to support Sisolak, first in the Democratic primary against a former union president of our organization, and then in the general election. Candidate Sisolak made promises to us that he would address how Nevada underfunds public education. We are still waiting for his plan. 

Experience is often a hard slap across the face. It has become clear to the teacher leaders of CCEA that neither political party has demonstrated the political courage to stand up for our students. This conclusion has led the members of our union to introduce the Strategic Horizons Campaign. Strategic Horizons calls for two ballot initiatives in 2022, one raising taxes on gaming and the other raising the Local School Support Tax (LSST). These taxes will generate over $1.4 billion annually to properly support our schools and other needed programs. If our lawmakers will not address the lack of revenue for our public schools, then we believe the public should.  

Though regressive, the LSST was chosen because it is earmarked, by law, to fund public schools. It is worth noting that since the 1980s when lawmakers made this the primary source of funding education, no one has made an effort to change it. Our primary reason however in choosing the dedicated LSST is that we do not want to raise a tax where politicians are free to take that money away from our students. Such thievery has been our experience with previous taxes on marijuana and hotel rooms. 

These initiative petitions are two years away and do not preclude our lawmakers from doing the right thing in the 2021 Legislative Session. Politicians should find the courage to lead, raise taxes and adequately fund education. As we have seen, relying upon the existing tax structure is a recipe for disaster. We ride high in financial good times and crash harder than our fellow states when the bubble bursts. 

Politicians often wax poetic about creating an economy in Nevada that is diverse and no longer dangerously reliant upon tourism. Consider a future where a properly-funded school system produces brilliant graduates who are then able to diversify our economy and provide the prosperity that we all desire. One of the key components of any strategy to build a new economy in Nevada is to invest in our public schools. A highly-educated workforce will attract entrepreneurs of all stripes and create well-paying jobs for our residents. 

CCEA is well aware that discussions about raising taxes are difficult. Especially today. The pandemic and the recession it has caused will not last forever. We will recover. The real existential question however is this: In a world consumed with immediate gratification, will the people of Nevada vote to make a long-term investment in public education? 

Kenny Belknap
Kenny Belknap is a social studies teacher at Del Sol Academy and serves on CCEA’s Executive Board.
Dan Barber
Dan Barber is a social studies teacher at Arbor View High School, served on CCEA’s Executive Board from 2015-19, and is currently a CCEA association representative for Arbor View High School.