Good, but not good enough.
That’s how many advocates of more funding for education view this year’s session of the Nevada Legislature.
While lawmakers significantly altered the education landscape, they did not add as much money for public schools as some had sought. Legislators also made a last-minute change to a bill revising the state’s education funding formula that critics say significantly weakened the measure.
“I don’t feel like they showed a strong support of education and our needs by what happened this session,” said Jenn Blackhurst, president of the Hope for Nevada group that is part of the Fund Our Future coalition. “And a big part of that would be basically what I would consider the gutting of the new funding formula.”
Updating an antiquated formula
The new Pupil-Centered Funding Formula approved by the Legislature will change the way education money is distributed to districts when it takes effect in 2021. Essentially, it will give large urban districts with more-challenging student populations more money while freezing rural districts at current funding levels for a period of time.
It could also have a longer term impact on spending, as a new Commission on School Funding studies how much the state should spend to adequately fund education. A 2018 study recommended per pupil spending of at at least $9,238, well above Clark County’s current level of $6,067 for this year.
The legislation also tasks the commission with providing input on how much extra money should go to students who are English language learners, gifted and talented, in special education or near the poverty level.
But funding advocates say a last-minute change essentially gutted the bill.
The bill originally required that education funding increase each year to match inflation, orwhen the state’s general fund outpaces inflation and enrollment rates.
An amendment, however, essentially turned those requirements into suggestions, allowing the governor to follow such g guidelines “to the extent practicable.”
‘Flawed to begin with’
That led a number of education groups — already critical of the legislation because it did not set what they consider adequate spending levels — to pull their support.
“The bill was flawed to begin with,” said Amanda Morgan of Educate Nevada Now, also part of the Fund Our Future coalition. “And it just got worse with the amendment.”
But Assemblyman Jason Frierson, D-Las Vegas, defended the provision, saying it will help the state weather future economic downturns while also working to support an appropriate funding level.
“We have an obligation to continue to work toward fully funding education by making adjustments to other areas of our general fund budget,” Frierson said. “I still think that SB 543 will still create that structure.”
Rural districts, meanwhile, have concerns about the provision to freeze their funding at fiscal year 2020 levels. When it is implemented, superintendents say, they will need to cut or eat into reserves to fund operations.
The Clark County School District, however, supports the measure.
“This is a really, I believe, is a game-changer for Clark County and for our children,” Superintendent Jesus Jara said at a news conference earlier this week. “…Is it perfect? No, we know that.”
New revenue for schools
Legislators also finally funneled the 10-percent retail marijuana tax to education, boosting the state’s Distributive School Account by $120 million over the biennium.
County commissioners in the state also can impose a 0.25 percent sales tax to fund education or other programs. But in Clark County, commissioners have expressed caution about doing that.
The tax money would contribute only $108 million annually toward an overall budget in the Clark County School District of $2.5 billion
And a Guinn Center analysis also notes that the move would increase reliance on local revenue in a state that already is among those most dependent on local revenues to fund education.
Democrats also pushed through legislation to extend the state’s payroll tax, raising a projected $98 million that helped fund school safety, teacher raises and a tax-credit program to help students in poverty attend private schools. Clark County received roughly $25 million from that bill, helping cover educator raises.
That payroll tax money might be threatened, however, if Republicans follow through on threats to sue over the vote to extend it the tax. They argued that the bill needed to be approved by a two-thirds majority in both houses, although a legal opinion from the Legislative Counsel Bureau concluded otherwise.
Republicans also argued that legislators had anywhere between $140 million to $240 million in excess revenues that could have funded educator raises, rendering the payroll tax extension unnecessary
But Frierson dismissed that line of thinking, saying that teacher raises were one of several things legislators were looking to fund and again mentioning the possibility of a future economic downturn.
Roughly $55 million of that money will go toward school safety initiatives that district may apply for through grants, including facility improvements and hiring of more licensed mental health workers and school police officers.
Legislators also nearly doubled weighted funding for impoverished students or English language learners who score in the bottom 25 percentile on state tests.
Educators had been critical of the distribution of that money, which previously sent $1,200 per qualifying student to the poorest-performing schools first. But the $69.9 million each fiscal year for this biennium means that weighted funding will extend to qualifying students in higher-performing schools as well. In Clark County, the district estimates all schools with one to four stars should receive that extra per-pupil money.
School choice limited
A number of school choice programs enacted by the Republican-controlled 2015 Legislature were cut back or eliminated completely.
The never-funded Education Savings Accounts program, which would have provided money for K-12 students seeking a private education, died on the final day of the session.
Sen. Scott Hammond, R-Las Vegas, who sponsored the program, described it as a casualty in the battle over the payroll tax extension, which he did not support.
“Effectively, this session was about killing any kind of school choice except for charter schools,” he said.
Opportunity Scholarships, a tax-credit program that funds tuition for students in poverty to attend private schools, survived. Yet the program will no longer grow by 110 percent every year and is instead capped at roughly $6.7 million annually.
In a last-minute concession in the fight over the payroll tax, Democrats offered another $9.5 million for the program over the biennium to ensure that students currently in the program can continue receiving scholarships.
“We were like right in the middle of that political battle more than anything else,” said Valeria Gurr of the Nevada School Choice Coalition.
The coalition is celebrating that the program was not scrapped and that current students receiving the scholarship can stay in their schools. But on the flip side, the program’s growth was capped.
“The downside is there are thousands of people on the waiting list (for private schools),” Gurr said.
The Achievement School District, which allowed charter operators to take over an underperforming school or open a competing school nearby, also died. The four charter schools in the special district can instead move under the purview of the State Public Charter School Authority.
Read by Grade 3 defanged
The Democrat-dominated Legislature also reversed course on a law that required schools to hold back third-grade students who don’t pass a state reading exam. The Read by Grade 3 initiative was passed during the Republican-controlled 2015 Legislature.
New legislation approved during the session removed the retention requirement for such students.
Students were at risk of being retained beginning this 2019-20 school year. Instead, schools are now required to provide “intensive instruction” if a student does not pass the test. Principals can still retain students in consultation with a literacy specialist and other appropriate staff.