School choice is a phrase you’ve been hearing a lot lately as Nevada rolls out its education savings account program, which gives parents funds for alternative schooling. Debates over the program are highlighting broader issues in education funding. To begin with, the Nevada State Plan, which governs school funding in the state, hasn’t actually been updated since 1967.
Public schools have a lot of things to pay for. Buses and drivers. Buildings. Electricity. Teachers and administrators. Supplies. Maintenance. And that’s the bare minimum. Adding support for English language learners, or providing lunch for kids living in poverty adds more dollars to the tab. And if you want teachers specialized in educating kids with developmental disabilities, or programs that challenge gifted students? That’s gonna cost you, too.
Right now, Nevada schools are struggling to meet minimum requirements.
"Nevada is about $1.6 billion short of providing an adequate education," says Dr. Magdalena Martinez, Director of Education Programs with The Lincy Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "And that does not include, of course, weights for specific program areas such as gifted and talented programs, free and reduced. It’s just the basic, base funding level."
Attempts to increase the state’s education budget, and to introduce funding weights to The Nevada State Plan, which would help schools provide extra services for kids with special needs, have largely failed. That’s left legislators with no choice but to create separate spending programs, like the Victory Schools plan for low-income kids and the Zoom Schools plan for English language learners. Victoria Carreon, with the bi-partisan think tank The Guinn Center, explains.
"The issue there is that the funding is being given out for specific schools. Usually when you have weighted funding, the funding is targeted at a specific population, a specific demographic. So at the Zoom schools, all the services are for every student, not just English learners. Similarly, all of the services at Victory Schools are for every student at that school."
Although the Nevada Plan may fall short on equity these days, Carreon points out that it was originally created to make education funding more fair across the state.
"The idea was to equalize funding somewhat between the counties, because some counties had much more local funding per pupil than others, and so this was supposed to establish a basic support guarantee, and whatever the local funding could not fund, the state would come in and fund that difference," she says.
Nevada counties still get local funding, and that funding varies wildly across the state depending on everything from the number of pupils to the industries active in a given county. In some parts of the state, mineral rights taxes help to foot the bill for education, which ties school funding to the vagaries of the commodities market.
"So for districts like Eureka and Lander in the past, they have not received any state funding because their local funding is so much that it is higher than the basic support guarantee. In other years, for those same school districts when mining taxes are not as strong, they have far less funding. So it can really vary quite a lot," Carreon says.
Just last year, Eureka County schools spent a whopping $41, 173 per pupil. Washoe and Clark Counties, the most populated in the state, always have the lowest per-pupil funding, between $8,000 and $9,000, on average.
But does spending a particular amount per student ensure equality?
Seth Rau, policy director at education nonprofit Nevada Succeeds, says that while money is important, there are other factors that go into creating a high-quality education system, including standardized testing and great teachers. And on the equity front …
“Look at suspension issues, look at bullying issues," he says. "Is there too much disproportionality? Are we sending too many kids on the school to prison pipeline? Especially for black men, or black boys, the suspension rates are far higher than they are for any other demographic subgroup.”
In the last legislative session, policy makers took the first step in creating a funding weight for special education students. Next year, instead of getting funding for one special-ed teacher, public schools will get funding that’s based on the actual number of special-ed students they have. On the docket for the next legislative session?: Bringing the Nevada State Plan into the 21st century.