The Nevada Supreme Court on Monday heard arguments in an ‘educational adequacy’ lawsuit that seeks to have the state’s beleaguered K-12 public education system ruled unconstitutional.
If allowed to proceed, the lawsuit would draw attention to the state’s historically low levels of per-pupil funding and, as has happened in similar lawsuits filed in other states, could eventually force state administrators and lawmakers to find bigger, more concrete solutions to systemic achievement and equity issues.
Shea v. Nevada, spearheaded by Educate Nevada Now and nine parents of 14 students enrolled in three public school districts across the state, was first filed against the State of Nevada in March 2020, mere days before the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was dismissed that October by District Court Judge James Wilson, who ruled that the plaintiffs were bringing forth “political questions not appropriate for adjudication” by the court because the Nevada Constitution makes education policy, including the setting of appropriate funding levels and learning standards, the discretion of the Legislature.
Bradley Schrager, the pro bono lead attorney representing the education advocates, argued to the high court on Monday that the judicial branch of government has a right and responsibility to intervene because the Nevada Constitution guarantees a quality education to students and the state is coming up woefully short.
Backing up his position are myriad reports and rankings, such as Nevada having the largest class sizes in the nation. The state has also struggled to retain teachers, fill substitute positions and boost test scores. Many of the challenges have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
If goals are set to have 17 students in a classroom but in practice those classrooms have 60 students, Schrager argued, the response of the courts should not be to “simply throw up our hands and say, ‘Well, you know, that’s politics. Vote for somebody better next time.’ … What happens when politics aren’t enough to achieve the things that these students have rights to?”
In 2020, Nevada was one of only a handful of states where an educational adequacy lawsuit hadn’t yet been filed, according to a lawsuit tracker maintained by the Center for Educational Equity at Columbia University. Supreme Courts in other states have determined that students there do have a right to adequate funding and some have set parameters for enforcing those rights. Such cases are long and involved legally; they typically span years.
In Nevada, Democratic legislative leaders over the past two regular sessions have touted what they say are historic investments in the state’s K-12 public education system, and they have taken steps toward replacing a decades-old funding formula that almost everyone agreed had outlived its usefulness. But Educate Nevada Now has been vocal in their uncertainty over the true impact of those steps.
Nevada has played bait-and-switch with K-12 funding before, most notably when the legalization of recreational marijuana was slated to bring additional funding for K-12 but was met with equally sized reductions in state general fund contributions.
The Commission on School Funding, an appointed board of education and finance experts tasked with recommending to the state what “adequate” and “optimal” funding levels would be and revenue models for achieving it, has already made some recommendations that have been largely ignored by lawmakers. Due to the massive size of the K-12 budget, there are few revenue streams that can bring in the necessary goals. Property tax and sales tax have been explored by the commission but both remain politically fraught topics.
While finding additional, permanent funding sources is often talked about as the necessary step, Schrager argued to the justices that the issue isn’t about getting to a specific dollar amount so much as ensuring that the specific resources, like librarians and licensed teaches, that have already been identified as being impactful to student achievement are available for all students throughout the state.
“This complaint was intended, in some part, to revive the notion of crisis, of ongoing crisis and to ignite an opportunity to employ new tools in this fight,” he said.
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