With the margins tax dead and a murky legislative session ahead, Nevada’s schools face an urgent future
“The public school is at once the symbol of our democracy and the most pervasive means for promoting our common destiny,” Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter said in 1948. Six decades later, that wisdom seems more up-for-grabs than ever. Schools are in trouble all over the country, but the issues buffeting public education — lack of funding, aging infrastructure, uncertain public support — seem particularly acute in Nevada.
Following last month’s solid electoral defeat of the Question 3 school-funding tax by a vote of 79 percent to 21 percent, the situation seems particularly muddled. Termed the Education Initiative, Question 3 was a 2-percent tax on businesses making more than $1 million a year; it would have added an estimated $800 million to the $2.5 billion Nevada’s public schools get from the state. With that measure safely dead, some of the officials and organizations that led the effort to defeat it — the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, Gov. Brian Sandoval — have promptly declared the need to rescue education. Sandoval says he will propose a package of solutions when the Legislature meets in February. But the same election that so decisively defeated Question 3 also saw a raft of new, tax-averse conservatives fill out the GOP majorities in both the Assembly and state Senate.
So it’s back to the drawing board for teachers, administrators and the apparently shrinking core of public-school defenders, who will have to work with this new Legislature to once again find Band-Aids to stop the fiscal hemorrhaging that has made Nevada No. 49 of the 50 states in terms of per-pupil spending on instruction. The bad news is that such stopgaps won’t address the estimated $6.9 billion in capital needs for the Clark County School District alone. Almost half of CCSD’s classrooms are in buildings 10-24 years old, says Carolyn Edwards, returned by voters to the School Board for a third and final term. Another 20 percent are older. “You have aging schools, rising enrollment and no capital fund.” (Voters defeated a school-rehab and construction bond in 2012.)
“We have needs, as well, as far as the ability to attract and retain teachers,” Edwards said. “We have a starting salary of $32,000, $33,000. In Texas, which also has no income tax, it’s $44,000. So it’s hard to compete with that.” Not surprisingly, CCSD opened this school year with hundreds of vacant teaching positions.
The good news, perhaps, is that there’s not much farther Nevada can fall.
‘Something must be done’
According to Education Week’s annual report on public school systems, Nevada ranked 51st when it comes to a student’s “chance for success.” As of the 2010-11 year, just 62 percent of Nevada’s students graduated on time, dead last among all the states that reported (three did not). Nevada’s 2011 instructional spending per pupil was in the bottom tenth among the states. At $8,222 per student, that’s about $2,000 less than the national average. Student population growth, which slowed during the recession, easing stress on the infrastructure, is picking up again.
Though the state has seen modest improvements in math and reading scores, clearly the situation is critical. Yet it seems the only consensus that Nevadans can reach is about what not to do.
“The voters sent a clear message that, in their view, a gross-receipts tax was not the appropriate vehicle to fund education,” Senator-elect Becky Harris told Desert Companion after the election. She’s been tagged as the likely chairwoman of the Senate’s education committee. She listed her priorities as teacher shortages, class-size reduction, early literacy programs, English language learners and teacher development.
Her playbook seems to mirror Sandoval’s, which is far from the ideological edge that conservatives have proposed in other parts of the country. During the run-up to the election, though, she also promoted “school choice” as the solution to educational challenges — that is, support for charter schools, vouchers for private schools. (The conservative American Legislative Exchange Council gives Nevada high marks for expanding charter programs last year.) Those concepts might gain traction in the 2015 Legislature.
Jeff Hinton, a teacher at Northwest Career and Technical Academy, was named Nevada Teacher of the Year last December. He failed to win a seat in the Assembly, where he had hoped to argue for increased school funding. He’s not opposed to reforms — merit pay for high-performing teachers, for example — but notes that they carry a price tag.
“These reforms cost money,” he said, “and I believe that Nevadans need to make the financial investment in our future. If we want to live in a modern state with a high-quality education system, we will need to pay for it. It is that simple.”
Annette Magnus, director of Progress Now Nevada, promises that funding will be on top of the agenda for liberal advocacy groups in the next session.
“Something must be done,” she said. “We cannot keep kicking the can down the road because we have done that for years and it doesn’t work.”
If you’re looking for recent precedents for optimism, you’ll probably be disappointed. Other than a stab at boosting school monies in 2003 in a rancorous session of the Legislature, state action has been a series of short-term measures.
So, what does the 2015 Legislature portend? With the margins tax defeated, elements of the business community are signaling a willingness to work toward a solution. Last month, the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance was scheduled to hold a panel talk with business leaders, politicians and education-union officials. Even the Chamber of Commerce, which led the charge against Question 3 and can reliably be counted to oppose any “additional revenue” (i.e., taxes), said that more money has to be found.
At the same time, both houses of the Legislature are in the hands of conservatives who believe they have a mandate to stop any tax increase — at least, that’s what the new Assembly speaker, Ira Hansen of Sparks, told the Review-Journal a few days before the chamber’s statement. Hansen is considered a conservative firebrand. As one GOP insider told journalist Jon Ralston, Assembly Republicans “wanted someone who wouldn’t toe the company line and was willing to make some noise.” And noise is probably a certainty — from every part of the political spectrum.
Still, while there's every ingredient for a difficult, potentially fruitless process, Sandoval and moderate Republicans want a public-school win to show the voters.
For her part, Edwards did not vote for Question 3 — she wasn’t convinced it would be a net win for the schools. But she says that money is going to be part of any positive change in schools.
“We hear the Legislature saying, ‘We can’t throw money at education,’” Edwards said. “I’d like them to try, because I don’t think we’ve ever ‘thrown money at education.’”