Education funding mandate proposed

CARSON CITY — A Republican lawmaker is pushing a plan he says would direct nearly $225 million into Nevada classrooms, without raising taxes to pay for it.

Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, is pushing a bill that would mandate 65 percent of money the state spends on education go into classrooms, an idea that gained national popularity about six years ago.

Roberson said the idea behind his Senate Bill 316 is to squeeze more money out of administration and other nonclassroom programs and direct it to things such as books, supplies and teacher pay.

Critics, a group that includes teachers unions and Nevada’s two largest school districts, dismiss the proposal as a tired gimmick that does more to generate sound bytes for conservative politicians than help children in the state’s under-performing schools.

The bill faces a Friday deadline to pass out of committee or die, although legislative leaders do have the power to revive bills later.

Roberson says he thinks the idea should be a factor in the so-called “end game” near the conclusion of the 120-day legislative session. That’s when lawmakers will be forced to make decisions about Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval’s plan to spend no more than $5.8 billion from 2011-13, a plan that includes hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to education spending and is opposed by Democrats who hold the majority in the Legislature but don’t have two-thirds support to pass a budget of their own.

“When we get down to the end and the majority party does not have enough votes for tax increases I would hope they would look at this more and more seriously,” Roberson said.

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, said he expects SB316 will get a vote in the Senate Finance Committee before the Friday deadline. But Horsford stopped well short of endorsing it, despite making some complimentary comments on the general concept when Roberson presented it Monday to the committee.

“I think there is some common ground here and areas we might be able to agree on,” Horsford said. “I support any effort to ensure that resources that we provide funding for get directly to the classroom.”

But Horsford was skeptical of Roberson’s claim such a move could shift $225 million in spending to classrooms. The claim is based on figures Roberson presented that show 57 percent of education spending in Nevada goes to instruction.

According to the figures, 9.8 percent goes to administration, 23 percent goes to operations and 9.2 percent to instructional support.

Horsford noted that Roberson’s list of nonclassroom spending included items that influence student performance, such as food service and school nurses.

“If a child doesn’t have lunch, how is he going to learn? If he is sick, how is he going to learn?” Horsford asked.

Clark County School District lobbyist Joyce Haldeman said Roberson also excluded money schools get for class-size reduction and other classroom programs.

When those are included, Haldeman, who opposes the bill, said Clark County is spending 66 percent of state money in the classroom.

“His bill wanted us to exclude those things. The truth is they go right to the classroom,” Haldeman said. “It is one more thing that is trying to micromanage what districts are trying to do.”

The Washoe County School District also testified against the bill for similar reasons.

Roberson’s bill isn’t a new idea. It was popularized in 2005 and 2006 nationally as the “65 percent solution” and was championed through the First Class Education campaign.

That organization was founded by Republican political consultant Tim Mooney and Patrick Byrne, founder of the Overstock.com website.

It was debated in several states and adopted by a few, including Georgia, Kansas and Texas.

Critics then and now dismiss it as a gimmick that lacks research to prove such a funding shift would improve student performance and doesn’t recognize the total cost of educating kids.

“It is the lazy man’s way of getting out of properly funding education,” said Lynn Warne, president of the Nevada State Education Association, which represents about 28,000 teachers, school nurses, bus drivers, librarians and custodians. “Everyone realizes it takes all of these services to produce a well-rounded education for kids.”

Roberson dismissed the union complaints, saying the NSEA has a conflict of interest because it represents teachers who would benefit as well as nonclassroom personnel who could lose funding under the bill.

He also acknowledged the partisan nature of education politics and that the bill, in part, serves to change the way voters think about Republicans on education.

“It is easy to paint Republicans as anti-education,” Roberson said. “This is a pro-education bill.”

Contact Capital Bureau reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861.

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