Educators rally for more funding from the Nevada Legislature in Carson City on Feb. 15, 2021. (Photo: Bob Conrad / This Is Reno)
A new billboard greets drivers headed southbound on I-580 from Reno to Carson City. It’s got a Nevada-blue background with yellow and white words atop reading: Education Feeds Minds. Why is Nevada starving its students?
Meant as a message to state lawmakers, the billboard is the effort of a newly launched statewide coalition of education, business and community leaders. Called Empower Nevada’s Future, the coalition is calling on legislators to raise the state’s K-12 funding levels to at least the national average.
Emblazoned on the billboard is a photo of plated dinner — or 70 percent of one, anyway. The billboard explains: “Our kids get 30 percent less educational funding than the national average.”
That’s just one of several stark facts coalition leaders highlighted during a press conference Tuesday.
Chief among the group’s concerns is the state’s impending switch to a new K-12 funding formula. A complete overhaul of the existing decades-old funding formula is nearly universally understood to be long overdue, however many education advocates believe the replacement formula (called the pupil-centered funding formula) needs additional revenue in order to work.
Under the new funding formula, existing categorical funding — that is, additional money that some schools receive for having high percentages of students with unique needs — would be spread out across all schools depending on the number of students with unique needs. For some Zoom and Victory program schools analyzed by Educate Nevada Now, that would result in significant slashes to their above-base-level funding over the next two years. Some would see more than half of their categorical funding disappear.
However, if the state funded K-12 at the levels recommended by experts, those same schools would see their additional funding raise significantly under the new formula. Some would see their funding quadruple.
John Anzalone, principal at Sierra Vista High School in Las Vegas, said he finds himself in awe of the “miracles” that teachers make happen within one of the lowest funded K-12 systems in the country.
“Imagine what we could do if we were properly funded,” he added.
Anzalone said the pupil-centered funding formula would provide transparency and create an algorithm that can help principals better predict what their budgets will be before the school year starts.
The new funding formula is designed to put an end to a budget bait-and-switch that has become commonplace in Nevada. Over the past decade, the state has offset new dedicated K-12 funding dollars (eg, room tax and marijuana tax) by contributing fewer state general fund dollars. The end result has been continuous budget shortfalls for districts and a frustrated public that doesn’t understand where the additional money they approved went.
With the rollout of the new funding formula set to begin this year, the timing is right to increase revenue, said Amanda Morgan, executive director of Educate Nevada Now.
“We cannot wait two more years, or four more years, to make a plan,” she said.
But where could the additional funding come from? That is the billion dollar question.
The Empower Nevada’s Future coalition is officially silent on the issue, asking that people and organizations pledge “to support efforts to identify revenue resources” and make funding education a top priority. It doesn’t officially prescribe a solution.
Several proposals are already on the table, and individual members of the coalition briefly acknowledged them Tuesday.
Mike Kazmierski, CEO of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada (EDAWN), mentioned the possibility of adjusting the state’s property tax. Property tax is a major source of K-12 education funding nationwide, and Nevada’s effective property tax rate is one of the lowest in the country.
“But there are many other solutions,” he added. “The broader the effect, the better it would be. That’s what we hire our legislators to do — to figure this out.”
Two bills proposing adjustments to the existing cap on property tax have already been introduced into the Legislature.
Calen Evans, president of Empower Nevada’s Teachers, name-dropped one of the three mining tax proposals approved by lawmakers last summer during the second of two special sessions. But he noted that any legislative action aimed at mining during the current session would have no immediate impact because the issue — which involves changing the Nevada Constitution — would still need to be approved by voters during the 2022 general election.
Clark County Education Association qualified two petition initiatives — one to raise the sales tax, the other to raise gaming tax. Democratic legislative leaders have already stated publicly they are not supportive of either measure, meaning the proposals will most likely be pushed to the 2022 ballot for voters to decide.
The Rev. Paul Hansen of Nevadans For the Common Good acknowledged criticism that sales tax is regressive and disproportionately burdens lower-income households. He said another possibility he’d heard proposed is instituting a tax on services, like going to the spa.
Rebecca Dirks Garcia, president of the Nevada PTA, said the answer to the question of where new revenue should come from might not be “just one thing.”
What she believes the state must do is create “a comprehensive plan that will meet students’ needs now but also 10, 20, 30 years down the road.”
The Nevada Commission on School Funding, which was formed by the Legislature in 2019 to work out the specifics of the pupil-centered funding formula, is tasked with recommending revenue sources to adequately fund education. That commission’s recommendations will, of course, be just that.
“It’s up to the Legislature,” added Michelle Booth of Education Nevada Now. “We’re here to support them.”
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