Nevada may be a long way from Kansas, but when it comes to state funding for schools, it may be closer than you think.
On Friday, the Supreme Court of Kansas ruled the state’s level of funding for public schools was unconstitutional, and it ordered the Kansas Legislature to spend more than $125 million to bring the budget into compliance.
Could the same thing happen here in Nevada, which consistently ranks low in terms of state and local support of schools? The possibility came up after a fascinating discussion Thursday at the Boyd School of Law (co-sponsored by the UNLV Education Department), where experts discussed not only the level of school funding, but the need to spend that money more effectively to help low-income students.
The bottom line? “All the ingredients for the lawsuit are there,” said David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center. (The center, by the way, labels Nevada’s education funding system as “regressive” and issues it an F grade in terms of meeting the needs of students, especially poorer students.)
The state constitutions of Kansas and Nevada are remarkably similar. In Kansas, “the legislature shall provide for intellectual, educational, vocational and scientific improvements by establishing and maintaining public schools, educational institutions and related activities.” In Nevada, “the legislature shall encourage by all suitable means the promotion of intellectual, literary, scientific, mining, mechanical, agricultural and moral improvements” and “the legislature shall provide for a uniform system of common schools.” (That system, as envisioned in 1864 when the constitution was written, is for one school in each school district for at least six months out of every year.)
In Kansas, “the legislature shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.” In Nevada, “In addition to other means provided for the support of said university and common schools, the legislature shall provide for their support and maintenance by direct legislative appropriation from the general fund.”
Not only that, but in Nevada, there are cases that further define education as a fundamental right and underscore the obligation of the Legislature to fund it. The most famous is undoubtedly Guinn v. Legislature, the 2003 case in which the state Supreme Court declared “Our Constitution’s framers strongly believed that each child should have the opportunity to receive a basic education. Their views resulted in a Constitution that places great importance on education. Its provisions demonstrate that education is a basic constitutional right in Nevada.”
And again: “The framers have elevated public education of the youth of Nevada to a position of constitutional primacy. Public education is a right that the people, and the youth, of Nevada are entitled, through the Constitution, to access.”
Note that the central holding of Guinn v. Legislature — that lawmakers could essentially ignore the requirement to muster a two-thirds supermajority to increase taxes in order to fulfill the constitutional obligation to fund schools — was overturned. But justices were clear when they did so that they were overruling only that portion of the ruling, and not the findings quoted above.
Staci Pratt, legal director of the ACLU of Nevada, said “we’re looking at it [a potential lawsuit] in depth,” adding, “we look at all the tools in our arsenal.” She said no final decision had been made, nor has a time line been set. In fact, she said, the ACLU has not given up on advocating at the Legislature for additional funds for schools, although years of advocacy has yet to produce meaningful results.
And there are differences between Nevada and Kansas, which has case law that led to establishing a specific amount for schools, a goalpost that the state repeatedly failed to meet. Nevada has no such goal, although the Legislature and Gov. Brian Sandoval boosted funding this year, especially for English Language Learner students and class-size reduction.
We may not be in Kansas, but that state’s example is sure to be part of a case in Nevada, if one is ever made.
Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist who blogs at SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.