Identifying Necessary Funding – SB543 Funding Commission’s Most Critical Charge

Last week, the first SB543 Commission to study and make suggestions for the new K-12 funding formula met for the first time.

While it was great to finally get a dialogue started between this group of ambitious K-12 funding experts, it was obvious that there remained a lot to clarify about the charge of the group, the data they will require and other key factors to ensure the success of the new funding formula.

One key misconception surrounding the commissions’ responsibility concerns new revenue.

One member stated the commission has “no ability to make a direct impact on adequacy. Our best hope, I believe, is to come up with a transparent plumbing system through which citizens can see and feel good about the liquid that’s flowing.”

However, that runs contrary to section 11 (1)(C) of SB543 which states

“The Commission shall review the statewide base per pupil funding amount, the adjusted base per pupil funding for each school district and the multiplier for weighted funding for  each category of pupils appropriated by law  pursuant to section 4 of this act for each biennium and recommend any revisions the Commission determines to be appropriate to create an optimal level of funding for the public schools in this State, including, without limitation, by  recommending the creation or elimination of one or more categories of pupils to receive additional weighted funding. If the Commission makes a recommendation pursuant to this paragraph which would require more money to implement than was appropriated  from the State Education Fund in the immediately preceding biennium, the Commission shall also identify a method to fully fund the recommendation within 10 years after the date of the recommendation.”

In other words,  the commission must identify adequate/optimal base per pupil funding for all students, how funding levels should be adjusted based on each district’s needs, and what additional funding (weights) should be provided to students with unique needs.  The commission must then identify a way to reach appropriate funding within 10 years. This could mean potential new revenue sources or different allocations of existing funds.

The commission should provide recommendations that will do what the bill itself unfortunately did not – determine what is actually needed for our students to achieve.  Recommendations address the following:

1. Inadequate base per-pupil funding means students will not have the resources they need – appropriate class sizes, quality experienced staff, up-to-date books and technology, and everything else we know leads to student success.  To not make a recommendation on what this funding level should be, and more importantly, fail to make a plan to get to this funding level, means our new funding formula has the same fatal flaw as the old.

2. Implementing weights without additional funding will harm our most vulnerable students.  Currently, restricted-use or categorical programs serve just about 20% of students who are English learners or at-risk. It is dangerous to assume that funds that support these programs can be spread out to all EL and at-risk students with the same results.  Without additional funds to support weights, many successful programs, such as ZOOM and Victory schools, may lose important resources, while at the same time EL and at-risk students not in these schools will not receive enough resources to impact their achievement.  It is a lose-lose situation without a commitment of additional dollars.

3.  We have already seen in preliminary modeling of the formula that adjusting funds between districts without a commitment of new dollars means many districts that are currently struggling will face even more budget cuts.  Particularly, assuming existing funds are “enough” means small districts that experience enrollment growth must do so without additional funding. This also runs contrary to the state’s own studies that find 15 out of 17 districts are currently not receiving adequate funding.

Having to identify new revenue is not uncommon, in fact multiple commissions in other states focused on changing their K-12 funding formula also identified the need for new revenue to produce an effective funding formula. Other states have charged commissions with similar tasks as the Nevada School Funding commission.

The Texas School Funding Commission was asked to define the purpose of the school funding system between state and local funding, the appropriate levels of local maintenance and operations and interests necessary to implement a public-school finance system that complies with the Texas Constitution, and policy changes in public schools necessary to adjust for student demographics and geographic diversity in the state. Texas proposed additional dollars through various current state revenues to achieve 60 percent proficiency amongst all students.  The Ohio School Funding Commission had a similar task of adjusting their biennium legislative patchwork method for school funding. However, the findings of these commissions were very strong and innovative. Ohio proposed a weighted funding formula with a base that is based off of specific education resource costs with adjustments for students with additional needs.

Staying away from the conversation of new revenue will be detrimental for our students.  We avoid putting ourselves on a path to ensuring every student has the opportunity to succeed, regardless of their unique needs or what district they live in.

Identifying appropriate funding and how to get there  is the most significant part of SB543, considering the state will no longer commit to increasing K-12 funds at the rate of inflation or Nevada’s economic growth as written in the first draft of the bill.

Without setting us on a path to adequate funding what really is the impact of the new funding formula? Nevada needs to do more than just figure out a way to reslice its small pie. Without doing so Nevada will continue to rank towards the bottom of student achievement, will continue to neglect the additional needs of most students with unique needs and will continue to have the largest class sizes in the nation. Nevada needs real change and this commission has the authority and responsibility to drive that change.

As commission member Jim McIntosh put it “We (commission members) have a lot of power to change things here and the power to define things as we’d like to see them going forward.”

Let’s hope that they do.

Tomorrow, October 11 the SB543 Funding Commission will meet again at noon following their two working group meetings at 9:30 a.m. More information here.