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VICTOR JOECKS: You can’t fix Nevada education by repeating past mistakes

One of the greatest barriers to improving education in Nevada is the widespread ignorance of past attempts to do so.

Nevada lawmakers are going to have a lot money of spend when they meet next month. Every government agency and special interest will want their piece of the pie. The loudest will almost certainly be the public education establishment.

Expect to hear lots of talk about the Commission on School Funding. A previous Legislature created it to call for more public school spending and identify specific taxes to raise. Its report came out late last year, and it’s a doozy. The group wants Nevada to spend an additional $2.6 billion to $3.2 billion annually on education, phased in over 10 years.

To raise that money, the commission looked at massive increases in the property and sales taxes. Thanks to Gov. Joe Lombardo’s pledge to oppose tax increases, those ideas aren’t going anywhere. But you can be certain Lombardo will face heavy pressure to increase education funding, especially given the influx in tax revenues.

The assumption underlying this debate is that more education funding will improve student achievement. The commission made clear that it agrees with this sentiment. “It can be presumed that increased funding will lead to desired outcomes — improved graduation rates, improved testing results, workforce assimilation,” its report states.

One problem. There is decades of evidence in Nevada that “increased funding” didn’t boost “desired outcomes.”

“We must begin a concerted effort to reduce class sizes to an acceptable level, especially for grades K through 3,” then-Gov. Bob Miller said in his 1989 State of the State address. That led to the creation of Nevada’s class-size reduction program. Three decades and billions of dollars later, fewer than 43 percent of Nevada’s fourth-graders are proficient in English. In math, proficiency is a mere 34.9 percent.

Incredibly, the Legislature knew early on that the program didn’t work. A 1995 evaluation of the program found “approximately 90 percent of the differences in student scores are ‘unexplained’ by the data. These differences reflect such factors as different teaching styles, maturity of students, family support and other variables not included in the study.” Translation: This program doesn’t do squat. But the spending continued.

“A more prosperous Nevada, and a better educational system, requires an investment by all Nevadans, and all Nevada businesses,” Gov. Kenny Guinn said in his 2003 State of the State speech. “Therefore, I bring to you tonight a budget request for $980 million in new revenue.”

It took a constitutional crisis, but Guinn eventually muscled through what was then largest tax hike in Nevada history. He was less successful in turning that new money into a “better educational system.”

“We must fully fund the education initiatives I have outlined,” Gov. Brian Sandoval said in his 2015 State of the State address. “I am therefore proposing a broad-based solution that asks Nevada business to invest in our education system.”

He passed the largest tax increase in Nevada history. He even wisely directed most of the money to specific programs instead of making it available for collective bargaining. But his successor, Gov. Steve Sisolak, largely undid his reforms, including gutting the retention requirement in the Read by Three program.

Sisolak’s solution? You guessed it. Spend more. Less than two years ago, he signed a mining tax hike. “This investment will benefit every student, educator and family in Nevada,” he said at the time.

Yet, here we are. The education establishment once again wants more money, confidently promising that this time a brand new infusion of spending will fix things.

In contrast, Lombardo said expanding school choice is his priority. If he wants to actually improve the state’s public schools, that’s the path he needs to pursue. Give the public a history lesson on why Nevada must try a new approach.

Victor Joecks’ column appears in the Opinion section each Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Contact him at vjoecks@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4698. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.

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