Neighboring states upstage Nevada education

The majority of Nevada’s neighbors boast higher student achievement at lower cost

By Geoffrey Lawrence
  • Thursday, September 15, 2011

There is one point of universal agreement among those who sincerely hope for economic growth and diversification in Nevada: The state's education system must perform substantially better.

Figures maintained by the U.S. Department of Education show that students among Nevada's regional neighbors have performed much better on standardized national tests than have students in Nevada. What's more — they are doing so at lower cost!

Among Nevada's five contiguous states, only California's educational system produces lower scores on the eighth-grade reading and math tests administered by the U.S. Department of Education.

Nevada's score on the NAEP 8th grade reading test compared to neighboring states

Nevada's score on the 8th grade NAEP math test compared to neighboring states

The tale gets even worse when it comes to graduation rates. In terms of reported graduation rates, Nevada's rates over the past decade have fallen far below those of the state's neighbors. (It is unclear how much of the gap reflects other states' continued use of misleading metrics that Nevada was compelled to abandon, although Ed Week says Nevada's graduation rate is even lower, at 41.8 percent.)

Nevada's graduation rate compared to neighboring states

These trends mean that the next generation of Nevadans will be less apt to compete on the regional labor market. This generation will likely have a lower earning potential than its regional neighbors because labor productivity is linked to educational achievement. Educated workers are better prepared to use advanced capital equipment such as robotics and computers, and the use of such increasingly complex capital equipment is the primary driver of labor productivity and wage growth.

Moreover, Nevada's educational system has been failing residents' children even though state taxpayers — contrary to reports — have demonstrated a much higher financial commitment to K-12 education than have taxpayers in most neighboring states. Among Nevada's neighbors, only taxpayers in California and Oregon commit more to education funding, on a per-pupil basis, than do Nevada taxpayers. This is according to data maintained by the U.S. Department of Education, which excludes various costs from its figures such as those for employee benefits.



Per pupil spending, 2008, current expenditures

Per pupil spending, 2008, capital expenditures

Per pupil spending, 2008, interest on school debt

Per pupil spending, 2008, total































If more taxpayers in the Silver State realized the comparative results of its educational system, relative to the amount of tax dollars expended, the almost certain result would be a wholesale housecleaning in Carson City.

And if that's true for Silver State taxpayers, it should be doubly true for their peers in the Golden State.

Among Nevada's neighbors, only California's educational system underperforms that of Nevada on a dollar-for-dollar basis. Although California tops the list in per-pupil funding, students in California perform worse on standardized national tests than those of every other Western state.

This observation underscores an unfortunate reality: Education policymakers nationwide have failed to translate funding into results. In fact, the highest spending jurisdiction — Washington, D.C., at $20,066 per pupil — yields the worst test scores nationwide on both the eighth-grade reading and math tests. The margin is not small, either. Students in America's highest spending jurisdiction test two full grade levels below the national average on both tests.

As elsewhere, special interests in Nevada continue to claim that a lack of funding is responsible for the deplorable results of the state's educational system. As the state teacher union says, "Nevada is inadequate in so many ways — how it funds education, its support for educators and students .... All of this adds up to an underperforming school system." This is in spite of clear evidence that government schools in Nevada spend more and perform worse than those in most neighboring states. In fact, instead of focusing on how to translate money into success, these advocates have for years flaunted their failures as justification for higher and higher taxes.

What has become clear across the nation is that education dollars are spent ineffectively in many states — Nevada included. As a result, per-pupil spending levels bear no meaningful relationship to student achievement. Happily, some states have begun to aggressively reform the structure of their K-12 systems to use tax dollars more effectively.

National research shows that specific education reforms lead directly to higher student achievement. These include: allowing private school choice, allowing open enrollment between schools and school districts, identifying and retaining highly effective teachers while removing ineffective teachers, creating an alternative teacher-certification process, maintaining strict academic standards and liberalizing charter-school laws. Thankfully, Nevada lawmakers finally began to implement some of these reforms in 2011.

Given the financial commitment already made to the state's educational system, Nevada taxpayers deserve more. Policymakers should continue serious reforms — and transform our public schools from mere regional leaders in spending to leaders in results.

Geoffrey Lawrence is deputy director of policy at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more, visit

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