Nevada’s new K-12 funding formula is taking shape. Will any revenue follow?

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CCSD Superintendent Jesus Jara flanked by Gov. Steve Sisolak and CCEA Executive Director John Vellardita when a threatened CCEA strike was averted in August 2019. (Nevada Current file photo)

Finding additional revenue to fund Nevada’s beleaguered K-12 system was always going to be a heavy lift. Now, with economic realities brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, any ask for more funds is that much heavier.

But the Commission on School Funding is gearing up to do it anyway.

“The timing is inconvenient,” said member Punam Mather during a meeting Thursday. “But I don’t know how we look at kids and say ‘because the timing was inconvenient we did nothing.’”

For more than a year, the 11-member commission has been meeting to hash out the specific calculations and other details of the complete overhaul of the state’s decades-old K-12 funding formula.

In July, the commission issued the first of its recommendations to the legislature. The recommendations focused on the mechanics and technical aspects of the new funding formula. But identical letters to the governor and Legislature sent with the recommendations noted what education advocates had long foretold.

“[T]he Commission struggled with reallocating funds in an equitable and student-centered manner while holding all districts harmless with the limitations of no new funds specified in SB 543,” the letter read, referencing the 2019 legislative session bill that created the new formula and the commission. “This results in the distribution of insufficient dollars to districts with highly a diverse student population only to redistribute those dollars to districts who would receive less dollars through the Pupil Centered Funding model.”

It continued: “The work of the Commission highlights the fact that Nevada’s base funding must be increased. This is a difficult position at a time when dollars are scarce.”

The commission is also tasked with recommending to the governor and Legislature possible revenue sources for adequately funding education.

That conversation has begun in earnest on the commission, but Chair Karlene McCormick-Lee hopes it will ramp up over the course of the next two or three monthly meetings.

“We hope that by February we can make some recommendations about revenue sources that would generate the dollars that we’re talking about over multiple years,” she said.

A 2018 independent study determined adequate funding would be somewhere around $9,200 per pupil. The existing per-pupil funding base is closer to $7,000.

That scales up to $1 billion more per year needed. It also means the state would need to invest beyond that if it wanted to go beyond “adequate” to “optimal” — a definition the commission is still working out.

McCormick-Lee says the delay on addressing the issue of future revenue was by design. The commission had to “get the mechanics right” and have a working model of how revenue would flow through the formula first, she argues.

One of the primary issues with the decades-old funding formula known as the Nevada Plan was that money was tough to track. It came from 80 different sources into different pots. Much of it was earmarked for specific things and offered little flexibility.

The new pupil-centered funding formula takes those dozens of sources and drops them into one pot. The analogy preferred by members of the commission is that of a waterfall. Everything flows from the top down. First money funds the Department of Education for administrative oversight. Then services like food and transportation are funded. Then the per-pupil base is funded. Then the additional “weighted” funds for students with more needs (like English language learners and gifted and talented education students). Finally, unspent money goes into an educational stabilization fund that could be tapped during future economic downturns.

While not every calculation and detail of the new funding formula has been worked out yet, McCormick-Lee feels they know enough to pivot to the all-important revenue discussion.

Getting and spending

One potential source that’s already come up in previous meetings is property tax. Property tax is a common source of K-12 funding across the country.

Sales tax, a highly volatile revenue source, is currently the primary source of funding in Nevada.

Thursday’s meeting of the commission included an explanation of the funding formula but was mostly dedicated to public comment. The commission was specifically hoping for insight on the concept of “optimal funding” and the possibility of implementing the new funding formula.

Several groups pushed a sense of urgency for the conversation on revenue.

“We highly recommend the commission make revenue recommendations prior to this upcoming legislative session so we can begin this urgent work now versus waiting until 2023,” said Amanda Morgan of Educate Nevada Now.

“We would recommend that the commission place great emphasis on adopting aggressive funding levels for the first six years of the plan with emphasis on building up the per pupil baseline funding level,” said John Vellardita, executive director of Clark County Education Association. “That means the next three legislative sessions would prioritize building the baseline funding level with adequate appropriations.”

Other groups called for the delay of implementation of the new funding formula, either because they have concerns about specific calculations within it or because they believe the shaky fiscal footing of the state warrants it.

“Rushing into the radical overhaul of such a complex system will practically guarantee that Nevada’s children are denied equal educational opportunities,” said Jeff Zander, a former Elko superintendent who spoke on behalf of numerous rural school districts. “This is especially true during these difficult and unpredictable times in which we are currently living.”

“A funding plan with no new funding was unworkable,” said Alexander Marks of Nevada State Education Association. “It’s unworkable with the additional cuts from last summer. It’ll be unworkable with the additional 12 percent proposed by the governor.”

Outside of the commission, the conversation on school funding has already turned to action. CCEA has submitted to the Secretary of State two ballot initiatives. One would raise the sales tax. The other would raise the gaming tax. Both would allocate dollars specifically to education. Assuming there are no hangs up in the signature verification process, those petitions will be kicked to the Legislature for consideration during the 2021 session. If the lawmakers opt not to act, the issues will be kicked to voters to decide in the 2022 general election.

Meanwhile, during a special session over the summer, lawmakers passed three joint resolutions proposing constitutional amendments that would raise taxes on the mining industry. One of those proposals would earmark a quarter of mining tax revenue for education, health care or economic assistance for residents. (The other two send revenue to the state general fund.) Lawmakers can consider all three proposals again during the 2021 session. If they pass any of the three a second time, that would push the issue to voters to approve or reject in the 2022 general election.

Education funding (or lack thereof) has been a scourge on Nevada for decades. In March, advocates filed an adequacy lawsuit asking for the state’s K-12 education system to be deemed unconstitutional — a legal maneuver that could compel the state to invest more. That lawsuit was quietly dismissed by a district court in October but will be submitted to the Nevada Supreme Court for appeal.

April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and three mutts.