Praise for K12 budget matched only by confusion over what it does

Some education advocates believe the $500 million which garnered headlines and public applause last week is simply a restoration of cuts. (A 2019 education funding rally at Liberty High School in Las Vegas. Photo by April Corbin Girnus)

Education advocates suspect another bait-and-switch.

The K-12 education budget bill, Senate Bill 458 passed unanimously in both chambers of the Nevada State Legislature on Wednesday and is now headed to Gov. Steve Sisolak for signing. It has been cheered as “historic” by legislators, but questions linger among education advocates who say the available data from the state doesn’t line up.

When the K12 budget bill passed through a joint budget committee last week, Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) asked for an apples-to-apples per-pupil comparison of the new and old budgets. He indicated he believed per-pupil support to be significantly more. Legislative staff during that meeting responded that they expected that comparison would be included as part of the final budget bill.

But when the budget bill was released on Monday, the apparent comparison wasn’t encouraging to education advocates.

Central to their concerns are the amounts of “total public support” listed in SB458 compared to those listed in the education budget bill passed during the 2019 Legislature (SB555). According to the 2019 budget bill, the total public support per pupil approved by lawmakers was $10,227 for the 2019-20 school year and $10,319 for 2020-21 school year.

The total public support per pupil listed in SB458 is $10,204 for the upcoming 2021-22 school year. That represents a $115 per student decrease compared to the previous year. The total public support per pupil is set at $10,290 for the 2022-23 school year — $29 less than current funding levels.

But all of that is only true if the numbers are comparable.

The printed definitions for “total public support” are identical within the two bills’ language, but Democratic state Sen. Mo Denis, who has championed the revamping of the decades-old funding formula, said the numbers aren’t actually comparable because the 2019 calculation included local schools ending fund balances while the 2021 calculation does not. That exclusion is because of the switch from an expenditure model to a revenue model, he added.

Any confusion about the numbers within the 2019 bill versus its 2021 counterpart only proves the need to revamp the funding formula in Denis’ mind. The revamped funding formula, known as the pupil-centered funding formula, has been described as more transparent than its antiquated predecessor, the Nevada Plan, which included dozens of different pots of money flowing in different directions. The pupil-centered funding formula has been described as a waterfall, with all pots of money being placed at the top and flowing downward to school districts and schools based on individual student needs.

“Going forward, we will be able to compare,” added Denis.

He added that despite a direct comparison not being available now, there is no doubt in his mind what the bottom line is: “It’s definitely more.”

Lawmakers in floor statements before unanimous votes to approve the budget echoed that narrative. Democratic state Sen. Marilyn Dondero Loop said the budget bill “puts our money where our mouth is” and she referenced “an additional $500 million to the base per-pupil spending.”

But education advocates aren’t convinced. They now believe the aforementioned $500 million, which garnered headlines and public applause last week, is simply a restoration of cuts.

“We’d been told inconsistent reasons on what may account for the apparent reduction, but no concrete per-pupil figure for an apples-to-apples comparison was ever made available,” said Educate Nevada Now Executive Director Amanda Morgan in a statement released Thursday. “In fact, we were told that even with the unaccounted for funds, there still may not be a per-pupil increase in the end.”

Education advocates have seen bait-and-switches from the state before, perhaps the most infamous example being “the marijuana money.” New revenue from the legalization of marijuana was expected to be a boon to the K12 system, but within the budget the newly dedicated revenue was met with an equal-sized reduction in state general fund dollars. That issue, known as supplanting, is supposed to be corrected by the new funding formula.

The Nevada State Education Association has raised concerns over the pupil-centered funding formula since it was proposed.

“The transition has been significantly harder to follow,” said Chris Daly of NSEA. The new funding formula “is significantly less transparent” than the old one, he said.

The idea that a direct comparison isn’t available doesn’t sit right with him.

“At some point it comes down to sending a certain dollar amount to schools,” he said, “so how much is that? How much? It’s either more or less.”

The Nevada Commission on School Funding is the appointed body that was tasked with crafting the specific details of the pupil-centered funding formula. Many, but not all, of its recommendations were adopted by lawmakers this session during the transition.

Chair Karlene McCormick-Lee said she is “absolutely thrilled” with the steps taken by lawmakers this session. She said she felt lawmakers have held in-depth conversations about funding K-12 education and how they can support the new funding formula.

“It is apparent they truly stepped up,” she said. “It’s far more support than we thought we’d have six months ago.”

That said, McCormick-Lee acknowledged that the complete picture isn’t in focus yet. Things will be clearer, she added, once the Nevada Department of Education takes all of the legislative actions and turns that into the individual budgets given to school districts and charter schools.

“I am one to hold that enthusiasm until we see what that looks like,” she added.

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.