Windfall for schools brings no guarantees

Two issues are central to Nevada’s margins tax debate. Thus far, justifiably, conversations and research have focused almost exclusively on one: how the levy would affect the state’s businesses. Which industries would be hit hardest by the 2 percent tax on revenue? How many jobs would be lost if Question 3 passes in November?

The other issue, however, is just as important: What, exactly, would state schools do with up to $750 million per year in new funding? And would all that money transform failing schools, assure achievement gains and erase Nevada’s reputation as an education backwater?

The Nevada State Education Association, which qualified Question 3 for the fall ballot, and other teacher bargaining groups say yes, a cash infusion will fix public education. But Nevada could learn a lot from New Jersey, which discovered that a nine-figure windfall for schools guarantees nothing but funding fights, political struggles and lots of hurt feelings.

Less than four years ago, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg went on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show and announced he would donate $100 million to the public schools of Newark, N.J., provided then-Mayor Cory Booker and Gov. Chris Christie could raise $100 million in matching contributions. Zuckerberg’s goal: making Newark’s failing schools “a symbol of educational excellence for the whole nation.”

Last month, journalist Dale Russakoff told the story of the donation and what it bought. His story in The New Yorker, “Schooled,” highlights how quickly new money can disappear in public education systems and how much power the status quo holds over schools despite poor performance. Zuckerberg’s money is pretty much gone, and the turnaround he pitched is barely off the ground.

Zuckerberg dreamed big — and really had no idea what he was getting into. Zuckerberg, Booker and Christie raised the money to pursue reforms, an expansion of charter schools and the closures of failing public campuses. In Nevada, if Question 3 passes, the money will be there to spend whether state lawmakers pass accompanying reforms or not.

But for me, two sections of Russakoff’s piece jump out. First, within two years, more than $20 million — more than 10 percent of the total funds donated — “went to consulting firms with various specialties: public relations, human resources, communications, data analysis, teacher evaluation. … The going rate for individual consultants in Newark was a thousand dollars a day. Vivian Cox Fraser, the president of the Urban League of Essex County, observed, ‘Everybody’s getting paid, but Raheem still can’t read.’” Second, to get the Newark Teachers Union to agree to abandon across-the-board pay raises and accept a merit pay system and rigorous evaluations, Zuckerberg had to cough up $31 million in across-the-board back pay to make up for two years teachers had worked without raises. Talk about a lack of return on investment.

I asked the Nevada State Education Association whether it would lobby the Legislature for pay raises for current teachers if Question 3 passed. “The NSEA lobby team is still formulating our list of priorities for the 2015 session,” union Communications Director Nick Di Archangel said last week. “As for teacher pay, NSEA agrees with experts who say better salaries attract and retain top quality educators.” There you have it.

It’s interesting that in the aftermath of the Newark donation debacle, unions that couldn’t get enough money now say money alone isn’t the answer. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told CNBC’s “Power Lunch” that teaching “is not a silver bullet kind of work. You have to engage the community.” In Newark, the “community” was the people responsible for giving Newark some of the best-funded, worst-performing schools in America.

In Nevada, the two issues surrounding Question 3 must be considered together. The margins tax would harm Nevada businesses without the promise of making Nevada’s schools better.

Glenn Cook ( is the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s senior editorial writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Glenn_CookNV. Listen to him Mondays on “Live and Local with Kevin Wall” on KXNT News Radio, 100.5 FM, 840 AM.