Nevada still near bottom in per pupil spending

Nevada's seat is at the back of the bus when it comes to the latest U.S. Census Bureau state rankings on per pupil spending.

Although the new data moves the Silver State up two notches, to 45th place, that ground might be lost if state budget cuts brought on by tax revenue shortfalls further affect public school funding.

Nevada Superintendent of Schools Keith Rheault said Wednesday that so far, most of the reductions have been taken from one-shot money for special programs, which doesn't erode per pupil spending. If education is asked to absorb additional cutbacks, Rheault said, it probably will be taken from per pupil spending.

"Anything additional would have to come from the DSA," said Rheault, referring to the distributive school account.

On Monday, Gov. Jim Gibbons said Nevada's revenue shortfall for the biennium could reach $898 million.

Per pupil spending as calculated by the Census Bureau includes money spent on instruction, support services, salaries and employee benefits. The rankings are based on 2005-06 figures, the latest information collected.

In 2006, the U.S. spending per pupil averaged $9,138, an increase of $437 from 2007. The highest per pupil spending was in New York, $14,884; New Jersey, $14,30; and the District of Columbia, $13,446.

Rounding out the low spenders were Arizona, $6,472; Idaho, $6,440; and Utah, $5,437.

Nevada's average per pupil expenditure in 2006 was $7,345, an amount that's about 20 percent less than the national average.

"I think that says that we don't value education as highly as we should," said Clark County School Board member Carolyn Edwards. "It's not a high priority."

Edwards said seeing Nevada's rank climb two spots, from 47th place in 2005 to 45th place in 2006, is at least a move in the right direction. But moving to the national average or better would take a significant commitment from state lawmakers and the public, Edwards said.

Nevada has gone as high as 43rd place, Rheault said, but he can't recall the state ranking higher. The gap in per pupil funding between Nevada and states with higher allocations is reflected in programs and class sizes, Rheault said.

Some examples include free summer school, offered by many states but not Nevada. Class sizes in high schools and middle schools also have grown over the years because funding to reduce that has not been available, Rheault said. When the state Board of Education last looked at the cost of reducing secondary class sizes, the expense was estimated at $120 million to bring the teacher/student ratio down by three students.

"We've noticed that over the last eight years, the average class size per teacher in Nevada has been going up by a half student per biennium," Rheault said. "We call it class size creep. Every year, it gets a bit bigger."

Contact reporter Lisa Kim Bach at lbach or (702) 383-0287.