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COMMENTARY: The facts behind Nevada’s education spending

Tick Segerblom’s plan to raise the county sales tax by a full percentage point finally makes sense: He is operating under the catastrophically flawed assumption that education spending is at an all-time low, when precisely the opposite is true.

Mr. Segerblom, a Democrat, currently serves in the Nevada Senate. He now seeks a seat on the Clark County Commission. In a recent tweet about education spending, Mr. Segerblom claimed that Nevada’s inflation-adjusted, per-pupil spending is lower “than at any time in our history.”

If that were true, his desire to increase education spending with another tax hike might be understandable. But he couldn’t be more wrong.

As the Review-Journal reported in December, per-pupil, inflation-adjusted funding for the Clark County School District has increased by 66 percent since 1967 — and that’s just looking at base funding received from the state Distributive School Account.

In addition to base funding, Nevada taxpayers contribute hundreds of millions of dollars more in “categorical” funds — supplemental funds used for specific educational purposes such as reducing class-size, helping low-income students and so forth.

Federal data from the National Center for Education Statistics shed light on the full scope of Nevada’s education spending: From 1960 to 2015, Nevada nearly tripled the amount spent on K-12 education, as inflation-adjusted, per-pupil expenditures rose from $3,556 to $9,165.

In total, Nevada spent approximately $4 billion on K-12 education in 2015 — the most recent year data were available from the center.

That number would have to have been $1.5 billion or less in order for Mr. Segerblom’s claim to be true. In other words, Mr. Segerblom appears to be operating under the assumption that $2.5 billion in annual education funding doesn’t exist!

While it’s obviously inexcusable for a lawmaker pushing for a tax hike to get his facts so wrong, it’s understandable that, given their continual struggles, some would assume our schools are chronically under-funded. But those struggles — stagnant test scores and declining graduation rates — have occurred despite generations of sustained spending increases.

Sadly, Nevada’s experience is just part of a much larger trend. On a national basis, the overall performance of K-12 schools has remained flat since 1970 despite a nearly 200 percent increase in inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending over that same time period.

Rather than blindly throwing more money at a demonstrably failing institution, Nevada needs to fix how our money is being spent.

Choice and competition improve virtually every aspect of our lives. There is absolutely no basis to support the notion that a top-down monopoly is the best way to deliver education — which is, after all, arguably the most unique and customizable service imaginable.

Nonetheless, supporters of the status quo have enjoyed decades of success in arguing for higher taxes and more spending as the answer to a failing education system — with each successive failure just seen as more “proof” for increasing spending further the next time.

Against this backdrop, it’s not terribly surprising that those advocating for yet another tax hike would prefer to rewrite history. But if Mr. Segerblom really believes that education spending is at an all-time low, he need not resort to a tax hike to change that. Simply looking at the data will get the job done.

After decades of failure, despite dramatic increases in public school funding, Nevadans deserve the opportunity to pursue meaningful education reform. If lawmakers are serious about improving education, they should immediately fund Nevada’s Education Savings Accounts, expand the state’s Opportunity Tax Scholarships and pursue reforms that put parents — not bureaucrats and politicians — in charge of how educational dollars are actually spent.

Robert Fellner is the director of transparency research at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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