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VICTOR JOECKS: Goalie’s bankruptcy shows folly of blindly increasing education spending

Before politicians dump money into Nevada’s broken public school system, they should consider the bankruptcy of Golden Knights goalie Robin Lehner.

Quick: Is someone rich if they have $5 million in assets? “Yes” is the obvious answer, but it’s not always the right one.

There are two parts to determining wealth. There’s how much someone has and how much someone owes. You can have millions of dollars and still be broke.

That’s the situation in which Lehner and his wife find themselves. They recently filed for bankruptcy. Court papers detail the scale of their financial predicament. They owe $27.3 million but have just $5.1 million in assets. Much of their debt came from a failed business venture.

There’s a lesson here for Nevada politicians attempting to improve education. For decades, governors and legislators focused most of their attention on spending. There was a push more than 30 years ago for class-size reduction. Over the past two decades, governors twice pushed through record tax hikes to boost public school funding. In his State of the State speech, Gov. Joe Lombardo called for $2,000 more per student. Last week, legislative Democrats proposed $250 million specifically to boost educator pay.

But while politicians have successfully increased education spending over the years, they’ve been less successful in boosting student achievement. On the Nation’s Report Card, test scores for Nevada’s fourth- and eighth-graders have shown little improvement since 2011. In math, the scores dropped noticeably. Fewer than 27 percent of fourth graders are reading proficient. In eighth grade math, just 20.8 percent are proficient or better.

Depressing stuff.

This doesn’t make sense if you consider only the dollars spent. But that’s like determining someone’s wealth by looking only at their income. There’s another factor to consider — how the money is spent.

Once you dig into this, the disconnect between spending and results makes a lot more sense. Look at Democrats’ plan to spend $250 million to raise teacher pay. You may support that. But good luck explaining how paying the same people more to do the same thing will improve student achievement.

You can’t even plausibly claim that higher pay will solve the Clark County School District’s teacher shortage. The district tried that less than one year ago. Yet it started the school year with more than 1,450 teacher vacancies.

The district has a retention, not a hiring, problem. Increasing teacher safety by allowing schools to punish violent students would probably help. Fixing that policy won’t cost more money, but it would make a difference.

In some cases, more money is counterproductive. A random-assignment study of Tennessee’s pre-K program found children who went to pre-K had lower achievement as they aged. Kids in pre-K were more likely to be receiving special education services, too.

In the Clark County School District, an influx in funding led to fewer teachers at low-performing and majority minority schools. The Clark County Education Association is now fighting an effort to use bonuses to attract teachers to those schools.

In personal or school finances, more money won’t fix wasteful spending. It’ll just make that problem more expensive.

Contact Victor Joecks at vjoecks@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4698. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.

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