CARSON CITY – So how much are Nevada taxpayers shelling out to educate children attending the state’s 17 public school districts this year?
And if the answer is not easy to ascertain, is it time to consider revising the 44-year old Nevada Plan, the admittedly complex formula used by the Legislature every two years to fund public education?
The Nevada Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank, recently weighed in on this issue, noting that many people, including policy makers, are either confused or deliberately misleading on the issue of per pupil funding in the public schools.
“To make informed public-policy decisions, taxpayers and policymakers should be aware of what they are really spending to educate children in the Silver State,” said Geoffrey Lawrence, author of the NPRI article called “Confusion is the Plan.”
This chart showing how the Nevada Plan works makes the complexity of the plan clear.
Nevada lawmakers are about to embark on a comprehensive study of public education funding as a result of the passage of Senate Bill 11 from the 2011 session, so there may be the opportunity to bring some clarity to the issue.
Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, agrees that Nevada officials should come to agreement on how to calculate per pupil spending. But of greater concern is how the money is spent, she said.
“To even talk about money, to me, is irrelevant,” Cegavske said. “You need to talk about how are we going to better educate kids so they are successful. You can give them a diploma, but if they can’t do the work or they don’t have the strategic intellect that employers look for, what good is spending the money.”
Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, said while complex, the Nevada Plan has served the state and its students well.
“It’s one of the few areas in the education world where we are acknowledged nationally for our equitable funding plan,” she said.
But the upcoming study will provide an opportunity to review it to see if it needs adjustment, Smith said.
The biggest concern in the NPRI article was a suggestion that maybe public schools don’t require the level of funding they now receive based on the per pupil analysis, she said.
“I think public schools in this country are the great equalizer,” Smith said. “I think it is perfectly acceptable for us to look at our funding formula periodically and also to make sure we’re able to talk similarly about the way we explain numbers.”
Crunching the numbers
Lawrence suggests that when all sources of funding are included in per pupil expenditures, the dollars spent are much higher than some would have you believe.
His analysis shows that for the 2011-12 school year, the Clark County School District plans to spend a total of $12,369 per pupil ($9,152 on current expenditures), while the Washoe County School District plans to spend $11,390 per pupil ($10,441 on current expenditures).
This is far more than the average of $5,263 for 2012 and $5,374 for 2013 approved by the 2011 Legislature. This is because the state funding is only one piece of the Nevada Plan funding puzzle. Locally generated property and sales taxes, along with other revenues, add to this total.
The funding process starts with a determination of what level of basic support is needed for each pupil. Then local reviews are estimated to determine how much they will contribute. The state provides the remainder.
But there are also funds that are “outside” the Nevada Plan, including federal funds and school construction spending.
Lawrence says that with a graduation rate of less than 50 percent, taxpayers need to know how much they are spending, and what they are receiving in return. He questioned whether private schools could achieve better results with less funding.
Washoe County Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison, while questioning some of the numbers used in the NPRI article, agrees that Nevada would be better served if everyone could agree on a uniform set of numbers for public education spending.
“Everybody’s got different numbers and everybody is using different numbers,” he said. “And so it really gets complicated in terms of trying to make some baseline comparisons, which I think is really necessary.
“So I applaud NPRI’s article in terms of trying to say, there are a lot of numbers out there and we really ought to use accurate numbers,” Morrison said.
Morrison said it was fair of NPRI to comment on Nevada’s woeful 50 percent graduation rate, but the Washoe district has worked hard on improving that number, which now stands at 63 percent, well above the state as a whole. That number will jump again and get close to the national average of 71 percent when the latest rate is announced Wednesday, he said.
The Nevada Plan has achieved its goals
While admittedly complex, Ray Bacon, executive director of the Nevada Manufacturers Association and a long-time education reform advocate, says the Nevada Plan has worked to equalize funding among the state’s 17 school districts and headed off potential lawsuits that have plagued dozens of other states.
“Is it a perfect formula? The answer is no,” he said. “But it works and it has kept us out of the lawsuit hell since 1967 or whenever it started, and we’re one of the few.
“Does it need to be adjusted? The answer is absolutely,” Bacon said. “Because what the economic situation was in 1967 is not what it is today.”
Where inequities do exist is with the schools within the districts themselves, although the federal No Child Left Behind Act has remedied some of that, he said.
Morrison agrees that the plan has worked as intended to send additional funding to Nevada’s rural school districts, which have expenses despite smaller student populations, from transportation costs to offering comprehensive programs.
But it does not address the more recent reality faced primarily by the two larger urban districts, which is educating children with poverty and mobility issues or who are not English proficient, he said.
“I think the old Nevada Plan probably benefits the rural districts, and I would hate to see that impacted negatively, but it also doesn’t address the huge increase in percentage of kids who come with those additional learning needs and clearly they have resource issues,” Morrison said. “And so as we look at that plan I think that is something that has to be revisited.”
Craig Stevens, director of government relations for the Nevada State Education Association, agreed that the demands for educating Nevada’s urban student population is not adequately addressed by the Nevada Plan.
The upcoming legislative study is the result of a bill sought by the Clark County School District to consider a weighted enrollment formula to take into account the different educational needs of children in the larger districts, he said.
“Not every student is the same and some cost more to educate,” Stevens said.
But the biggest concern the association has with the Nevada Plan is that the funding is like a see-saw – when local funding increases, state funding is correspondingly reduced, he said.
“In the good times and local revenues are up, really and truly unless that overall number – the basic per pupil – goes up, it’s a zero sum game,” Stevens said. “It’s really not taking into account what the economy is doing.”
One point of contention among Nevada officials is whether to count money spent on school construction, or on the repayment of school construction bonds, in the per pupil total.
NPRI included these expenditures as part of the total.
Cegavske said there is no question that these expenditures should be part of the total.
“To take any part of it away, I think, is disingenuous,” she said. “It all comes out of taxpayer dollars and they need to know how that money is being spent.”
Smith agrees the construction money needs to be accounted for, but separately from per pupil spending to evaluate student achievement. Counting construction costs in Nevada, which led the country in growth for 20 years, would not provide a fair comparison to a state that had slow or no growth, she said.
But Lawrence says the cost of buildings and related expenses are factored into the cost of private school tuition, and so should be counted for a fair comparison on the cost of providing an education.
“The costs of constructing a facility, and heating and cooling and everything, they are necessary expenditures for delivering public instruction, unless you’re going to do it outside in the heat, which I don’t think anybody’s advocating for,” he said.
Sen. Barbara Cegavske says the more important issue is what taxpayers are getting for their money:
Cegavske says school construction should be counted in per pupil costs:
Assemblywoman Debbie Smith says Nevada’s public education funding plan has served the state well:
Washoe County schools chief Heath Morrison says the NPRI article raises an important issue about finding common ground on reporting per pupil spending:
Morrison says the Nevada Plan does not take into account the cost of educating some students with special learning needs in the larger districts:
Ray Bacon of the Nevada Manufacturers Association says the Nevada Plan has helped the state avoid education equity lawsuits unlike many other states:
Craig Stevens of the NSEA says the association does not like the Nevada Plan because funding levels do not increase in times of economic growth:
NPRI author Geoffrey Lawrence says school construction costs must be included in per pupil funding to provide for a fair comparison with private schools: