On Tuesday May 21 the joint Senate Finance and Assembly Ways and Means Joint Committee heard SB 543, the bill to modernize the 52-year-old K-12 funding formula. It was the first hearing for the bill and a long one that lasted seven hours. It included more than two hours of presentations and plenty of public comment in favor, opposed and in neutral of the bill. Perhaps most interesting, regardless of what position people took, most had the same interests – we need to modernize the formula, make it less complicated and provide appropriate resources for all students, including those with unique needs.
The bill does a lot to address the the challenges of the original 1967 Nevada Plan. It includes ensuring that budgeting practices propose dollars that go to education actually increase funding and ends the supplanting of funds. It has a mechanism in place to ensure all students with unique needs receive additional resources (weights). SB 543 also includes a commission to require dialogue between districts, the Nevada Department of Ed and other education finance experts to ensure we execute the formula appropriately.
The bill also makes it easier to follow the money and understand how funds are distributed, and it provides for an equity adjustment that takes into consideration the unique demographics of our smaller schools and rural school districts.
There are so many positive changes in this bill, but unfortunately it still falls short.
It’s important to note that this is not a cost-based funding formula as it bears no relation to the actual costs of providing the adequate resources our students need and without additional dollars we will see no change in classroom sizes, educator salaries or classroom resources.
Perhaps most alarming is the fact that there are no adequacy targets or even an acknowledgement that the goal of the formula is to provide students with the resources necessary to meet or exceed the state’s own academic standards. Determining adequacy was the charge of the recently commission state study completed by Augenblick, Paliach and Associates, yet that work is not reflected in the formula itself.
Without targets or an acknowledgement, we have no guarantee that we will eventually provide the essential resources that lead to success, such as appropriate class sizes, quality educators, and up-to-date technology and textbooks. To add insult to injury we cause significant harm to many of our school districts by freezing their funds potentially for years preventing them from providing raises or making any improvements. In fact, per the study, 16 out of 17 of our school districts are considered to have inadequate resources.
To be clear, this bill lowers the bar on funding and brings everyone down to the same level of inadequacy.
We at ENN have studied many funding formulas in various states, as well as Nevada’s, We’ve traveled throughout the state to learn about the intricacies of our many different school districts.
We’ve seen many states such as Maryland, Wyoming, and Illinois who have adopted new funding formulas and have done so by setting adequacy targets and committing to eventually providing students with proper resources. We’ve also seen them do this while ensuring they don’t neglect any students in the process.
Some have stated SB 543 is “better than nothing,” but that is a false choice. We have the time to make this bill better. That is why ENN testified AGAINST SB 543 and is pushing for the following changes.
Commission – Amendments to sections 5-11 include changing the latitude of the Commission that will study the applications of models to make recommendations to the NV Department of Education and be more a recommending body than an authoritative one.
Many have expressed concern over the commission due to the high level of authority it is designated. We submitted our amendment to ease that concern and salvage the commission. The required dialogue between our school districts, education finance experts and the Nevada Department of Education is critical to the success of this formula, and it fosters trust and better understanding of school finance issues throughout the state.
Hold Harmless Per-pupil Enrollment Increases – Amendments to Section 15 address inequity issues in the hold harmless provision to ensure districts are held harmless under the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan, and that enrollment growth is accounted for with additional funding under the new funding models’ adjusted base.
Under the proposed formula, many of school districts’ overall funding levels are frozen, and they are actually punished for increased enrollment. At the state level, funding is determined based on enrollment, but under the new formula, several school districts will receive no additional funding, even as their enrollment grows. As counties try to attract new industries and grow their economy, they would be punished as the population grows and be forced to absorb the cost of new students without new dollars. This is especially damaging as most of of our school districts aren’t currently adequately funded, pursuant the state’s own study.
Legislative Intent – Amendments to Section 15 also express that it is the general intent of the legislature to provide resources necessary for students to have the opportunity to meet or exceed state academic standards.
Without any similar language we have no guarantee that we will move forward and work toward providing the adequate funding and resources our students deserve. We keep calling this a good first step, but we need language in the bill to show our commitment to taking a second step and and ensure we keep climbing.
We’ve been told that having adequacy targets opens up Nevada to liability if they don’t meet their targets. But most recent school finance lawsuits are not based on unmet targets or even too few dollars, they are based on student not having the resources to succeed. In other words, Nevada is already vulnerable to a lawsuit. Nevada has already done several adequacy studies that show it does not sufficiently fund its schools. It’s the lack of commitment to public education that creates liability, not the other way around.
Ultimately, we appreciate the bill and the hard work that went into it. Much of what it contains provides some real opportunity for change, but we’ve waited 52 years to do this, so why not be open to changes to make this bill any better?
If we can minimize the damage to many of our school districts with little fiscal impact, why wouldn’t we? Under its formula modernization, Illinois provides additional dollars in proportion to how far each district is away from adequacy so that no District is neglected along the way. Why can’t we?
It’s hard to go against the grain but when we can advocate for ALL students, the decision is easy. We stand firm that transforming public education in Nevada will require a commitment to both adequate and equitable funding for ALL Nevada students.