Public school advocates rally around bill to update funding formula

This story first appeared in the Las Vegas Sun on March 24, 2017. To read the original story click here.

State Sen. Mo Denis, a Las Vegas Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would fulfill a long-standing goal of updating the way Nevada public schools are funded.

It can be a dry topic, but school funding has far-reaching consequences that affect almost every student, family and neighborhood.

Denis’ legislation, Senate Bill 178, would establish “weights,” simple multipliers that increase the money spent by the state on students who meet certain criteria, such as those still learning English, students with disabilities and those from low-income backgrounds. Research shows that individuals who have to overcome such obstacles to learn need more attention and resources in the classroom.

Introduced last week and now in committee, the bill attracted a chorus of support from public school advocates, including teachers union the Nevada State Education Association (NSEA), whose lobbyist Chris Daly called it a “social justice issue for all Nevada students.”

Clark County Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky also supported the bill, noting that it would “take time to get right.”

“If we continue to starve our public schools by diverting money to other places, we’re always going to have this issue,” Democratic Sen. Pat Spearman said at a recent hearing. “I think that’s why we are here right now.”

What the bill wouldn’t do, however, is find the money to pay for all of it. Enacting the weights would require $1.2 billion in additional school funding over the next four years. Though the desire to put the weights into law is widely supported in education circles, the funding issue is where any hope of a united front quickly breaks down.

“You can put whatever you want in statute, but if you don’t have a funding mechanism it’s kind of a hollow promise,” said John Vellardita, executive director of the Clark County teachers union.

Even though state Republicans and Democrats agree the weights should be added and funded — bipartisan legislation passed in 2015 made it the express goal to do so — it’s not exactly a year ripe for talk of raising taxes.

Gov. Brian Sandoval, who is both term-limited and willing to use the gubernatorial veto, has proposed only modest funding increases to the school programs he created two years ago. The Republican governor faced backlash from the state’s ultra-conservative wing for pushing through a $1.5 billion tax package in 2015, backlash that spilled over into the 2016 election and Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson’s congressional primary loss to outsider Danny Tarkanian.

Some are proposing their own solutions.

“Let’s get real about this discussion,” said Vellardita. “It’s a billion dollars, and nobody has put that kind of money on the table.”

Instead, the Clark County Education Association (CCEA) under Vellardita wants to turn Sandoval’s added funding for programs in specific schools this year into a “universal weight” that would apply to all students. Currently, Sandoval’s education reforms from 2015 are centered within a handful of schools with high populations of English learners and low-income students, meaning students who fit that bill but don’t go to those schools don’t get the extra resources.

Applying a universal weight this way in Clark County would, according to Vellardita, net an additional $350 per English learner districtwide in the first year, but it wouldn’t be enough to provide the same for Clark County School District’s large population of low-income students. That’s why CCEA is calling for a modest $200 million increase in the current budget to help cover those students as well.

“$1.2 billion is a nonstarter, but $200 million for 154,000 kids is achievable,” Vellardita wrote in a recent op-ed.

The NSEA has suggested additional taxes on marijuana as well as redirecting a 2009 room tax increase, which was meant for education but later diverted into the general fund, back into schools.

“Finding pots of money here and there is not enough,” said NSEA president Ruben Murillo. “We have to look long term.”

Others are taking a more cautious, wait-and-see approach. Educate Nevada Now, a pro-public school group funded by the Rogers Foundation, feels the bill is paving the way for an ongoing conversation, one that hasn’t been had in the state before.

“I think there is an earnest desire to put more money into school finance,” said Sylvia Lazos, policy director for the group and a UNLV law professor.

“It’s great progress that we have a consensus on the weighted formula and the need to fund it,” she said. “We were not there when I started working on education issues.”