It’s amazing how little the Legislature has to accomplish for a session to be deemed successful: fund the schools and adjourn on time.
Although lawmakers may still find a way to force overtime, funding education first will not be the stumbling block. Tuesday’s agreement on a two-year, $2.3 billion K-12 budget proved that lawmakers can, for the most part, put their differences aside in the interests of the schools.
This was a classic Carson City compromise, with everyone getting a little and giving a little. The operative word, as always, is “little.”
Leaders cheered the compromise as the best they could get in a session stymied by a reduction in anticipated revenue growth.
All of them, that is, except Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus. The Las Vegas Democrat sulked Tuesday after the agreement was announced. No matter that she had agreed in principle the day before to a plan that cost just $4.5 million more. That she would turn a difference of two-hundredths of 1 percent into political thermonuclear war shows that Titus still can’t put her loss in November’s gubernatorial election behind her.
But this year, lawmakers weren’t going to get dragged down by that type of partisanship — at least not on the K-12 budget (they still have five days until adjournment). Instead, they cobbled together a plan that allows them to hype their incremental successes — money for 29 empowerment schools and all-day kindergarten at 63 additional schools.
They cheered their own “enhancements,” including the addition of $7 million to the governor’s plan for career and technical education. And they started yet another “pilot” program, this one costing $10 million to start performance-based pay for teachers.
They bought political support in piecemeal fashion, luring Assembly Minority Leader Garn Mabey, R-Las Vegas, along with the technical school money. Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, got to expand all-day kindergarten and take credit for adding $63 million to the governor’s education budget.
Titus got to cut into Gov. Jim Gibbons’ empowerment schools proposal. He wanted 100 schools at $500 more per student. He got 29 at $400. Gibbons gets to say he stood up to the tax-and-spend Legislature and wouldn’t let them raise taxes — not even by $4.5 million. And he got his policy wishes, save for the anti-terror fusion center he wanted for Carson City.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, held off the Democrats on universal all-day kindergarten and was able to restore cuts Gibbons had made to the higher education budget. Raggio also gets to say he held the line (finally) on taxes and retains his collegial relationship with the governor. Oh yeah, and because he relented on all-day kindergarten, he’ll get in the “appropriations” talks.
Meanwhile, lawmakers solved the green construction tax credit boondoggle with a plan to lose only $493 million over the next 10 years, the vast majority of which will impact schools and local government.
So where, exactly, are the gains?
In August, the Clark County School District will kick off another academic year with hundreds of vacant full-time teaching positions. The state’s superintendents wanted $1 billion in new money this biennium for everything from teacher salaries to student safety. A new Congressional Quarterly report ranks Nevada 50th in education funding.
In 2009, the various pilot programs will all report gleaming successes to the Legislature. “If only every school could be empowered, every kindergartner in class all day and every teacher eligible for merit pay,” education officials will say.
If only schools were like roads.
Legislators know they need to come up with a revenue solution for an estimated $5 billion, eight-year highway construction funding shortfall. There are myriad plans to get started on widening our major freeways. There’s $170 million in general fund money, tens of millions of dollars in potential tax diversions and proposals to raise gasoline taxes and various fees.
Too bad the Legislature couldn’t engineer a fix for the schools with such vigor and resources. It’s easier to pave a highway than build real improvement in education. What does it say about the state’s commitment to public schools when lawmakers scramble to craft a 10-figure highway spending plan, yet allocate a mere $63 million for new education programs when officials have identified $1 billion worth of problems?
Lawmakers fought bitterly about whether all-day kindergarten or empowerment schools were the right course. School choice? Real merit pay? Major high school reform? Maybe next session.
No one ever seems to declare that lawmakers must do something about education now — that it can’t wait another two years or the costs will be too high.
But this year, despite months of committee meetings, scores of bills, deadlines and debate, the 2007 Legislature’s main success will simply be getting out on time. A bold commitment to education, once again, will have to wait.
Erin Neff’s column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached at (702) 387-2906, or by e-mail at email@example.com.ERIN NEFFMORE COLUMNS