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Call for tax hikes to fund K-12 education meets with mixed reaction

Updated April 28, 2021 - 5:15 pm

A state commission’s recommendation that the governor and Legislature consider increasing property, sales or use taxes to raise billions of dollars to better support the state’s schools is drawing criticism from both sides of the political aisle.

The 11-member Commission on School Funding, formed by the Legislature, has been meeting since September 2019 to come up with a plan to to revise the state’s more than 50-year-old Pupil-Centered Funding Plan and reach an optimal level of financial support for kindergarten through 12th grade schools.

The group’s recommendations, delivered Friday to Gov. Steve Sisolak and legislative leaders, identify property and sales or use taxes as possible revenue sources. To reach either the national average or a higher target recommended by an independent consultant on per-student funding, the state would need to raise an additional $2.17 billion to $3.2 billion for education funding over eight or 10 years, it said.

Raising property taxes offer “the most promising, predictable, and sufficient funding source available,” the commission said.

But broadening the sales tax base would have benefits such as “creating a base that would be far less dependent upon certain areas of trade — which we know to be economically susceptible to fluctuations — carrying a disproportionate load,” it noted.

‘Array of funding sources’

The recommendations note, though, that even with increases in those taxes, “blending an array of funding sources may be required to meet the overall funding objectives” over the next decade.

The commission’s 18-page report calls for restoring education funding to 2019-21 budgeted levels first before seeking optimal funding.

The report comes as the state is dealing with the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including cuts to public education funding. It’s unclear if the Legislature will act on the commission’s recommendations during the current session or if tax increases could be considered.

In a letter to Sisolak accompanying the report, Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, D-Las Vegas, and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, D-Las Vegas, and commission Chairwoman Karlene McCormick-Lee wrote the commission will “continue to examine the details regarding the property and sales tax base and exemptions in order to make more refined and specific recommendations for optimal funding revenue generation.”

The governor’s office issued a statement Tuesday saying it’s reviewing the commission’s report and recommendations.

“The governor is grateful for the work of the Commission on School Funding and their efforts to help modernize Nevada’s education funding formula so that funding is allocated to meet each student’s needs in a way that provides equity, transparency, accountability and flexibility,” it said.

But Frierson took issue in a statement with one portion of the recommendations, saying that increasing the state sales tax is a “regressive concept that we do not support.”

“I support looking at other ways to increase revenue, such as by closing corporate tax loopholes with international mining corporations and short-term rental companies, which pay nothing in many counties in the state,” he said. “With regards to other revenue structures, many take time and robust stakeholder outreach and that has not been something we have had during this session. The fact remains that if we want Nevada’s children to have a world-class education, we need to have a better, more fair revenue model.”

The Review-Journal was unable to reach Cannizzaro for comment.

‘In the hands of the Legislature’

In a Tuesday statement, the Clark County Education Association said the commission’s work has been invaluable and that in order for Senate Bill 543 — which passed in 2019 and created the commission in order to overhaul the funding formula — to be properly implemented, it must be adequately funded.

“It is in the hands of this Legislature, during this session, to find and pass new revenue in order for this to happen,” the teachers union said.

The education advocacy group Educate Nevada Now and Nevada PTA President Rebecca Dirks Garcia both called for action from state leaders on the recommendations.

The nonprofit Guinn Center for Policy Priorities did not take a position on the recommendations, but said in a statement that “We believe their recommendations, specifically around how to reach the education funding targets, underscore the importance of revenue conversations that are currently ongoing at the Legislature.”

But Michael Schaus, a spokesman for the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank, said in a statement Wednesday that serious educational inequities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic showed that school choice — not raising taxes — is the best way to move forward on the issue.

“Education policy shouldn’t focus on merely increasing budgets or tinkering with funding formulas,” he said. “It should focus on ensuring every student — regardless of family income — has access to private or public options that best cater to their unique needs.”

Schaus also noted that Nevada’s K-12 system is receiving more than $1 billion through the American Rescue Plan, so it will be “operating with a surplus well above that originally anticipated when COVID first shut down the state.”

“Refusing to increase educational options for Nevadans while simultaneously considering potential tax increases amid such an influx of cash would be an insult to the students, workers and taxpayers who have struggled so much in the past year,” he said.

Randi Thompson, Nevada director for the National Federation of Independent Business, noted in a Tuesday statement that the Commission on School Funding didn’t specify a per-pupil funding level it deems necessary to improve student learning.

“Until they can do that, they should not be saying we need to raise more taxes to fund education,” she said.

“If you have a flawed system, no amount of money will get you better results,” Thompson said. “Before we raise taxes on hard-working Nevadans, we need to fix an educational system that continues to fail Nevada’s children.”

Several states spend less than Nevada and have better educational outcomes, she said, while several spend more and have worse outcomes.

The Nevada Association of Employers declined to comment on the commission’s recommendations.

Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter.

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