A dose of reality

Joe Enge

In a mad rush to jack up education spending by over a billion dollars during the 2007 Legislative Session — without any serious and badly needed education reforms involving choice or accountability — Nevada’s education establishment tripped over the rock of reality and stumbled headlong into a pronounced credibility gap.

While most media reports painted the session’s outcome regarding education as a balanced “compromise,” the reality is that the state’s insatiable behemoth was left stunned, trudging away with only $63 million in additional funding above Gov. Gibbons’ proposed budget.

General fund spending for K-12 ended up at $2.2 billion, or, when non-general funds are added to the Distributive School Account (DSA), $2.67 billion. The governor proposed a 13 percent increase, then accepted an 18 percent compromise. Instead of the $186 million sought for full-day kindergarten, proponents came away with $15 million.

Such a result was not predictable a year ago as the drumbeat and chants were building to blindly increase education spending under rosy state budget predictions. An expensive and inherently flawed adequacy study with predetermined results was touted in the run-up to the session, and the study’s predictable call for a massive increase was echoed by the Nevada State Board of Education. Then the state’s 17 school boards and 17 superintendents unanimously jumped on the bandwagon with their proposed “iNVest 07” plan calling for $1 billion in increased spending. “We’re asking for programs, not money,” they told lawmakers. But did anybody really buy that?

The false assumptions of the adequacy study were exposed during an August 2006 presentation to the Interim Education Committee. Testifying for the Nevada Policy Research Institute, the esteemed education analyst Dr. Richard P. Phelps and I made clear that despite its seemingly impressive volume of numbers and statistics, the adequacy study’s invalid premises made its numbers irrelevant and unusable. The study briefly popped its head up again during the early session but, thanks again to NPRI testimony, suffered the fate of the resident pest in the “whack-a-mole” game, never to be heard from again.

The rationale for full-day kindergarten received its first challenge during NPRI’s pre-session testimony in November 2006. The challenge clearly took full-day kindergarten advocates by surprise, exposing their lack of familiarity with the voluminous array of studies that shred claims of universal academic benefits for full-day kindergarten programs. Proponents clearly had not done their homework, banking instead on the chorus effect to drown out any potential objections. That proved to be a major mistake, as the counter-evidence NPRI offered spoke to not only the flaws in proponents’ claims, but their lack of academic honesty as well.

Things grew even worse for the establishment on the credibility front when the Clark County School District tried in February of 2007 to finesse a “study” that, they claimed, proved the academic benefits of full-day kindergarten programs. But State Sen. Bob Beers called them on some key missing data. When finally provided, it revealed that full-day kindergarten students who were not “at-risk” actually performed worse by the second grade than their half-day counterparts. The new governor, too, helped Nevadans see through the smoke and mirrors, with his opposition to universal compulsory full-day kindergarten.

A statewide decline in projected budget revenues brought the hammer down on full-day pre-school, yet Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley & Co. clung to it as though it were public education’s Holy Grail. As the session neared its end, preposterous assertions, political rhetoric and hyperbole filled the air — advocates’ last refuge amid an absence of supporting research and funds.

“Buckley contended some inmates might not have ended up in prison if they had received a better start to education with full-day kindergarten,” reported Ed Vogel of the Las Vegas Review-Journal on May 4. “Her comment sparked a response from Joe Enge, a member of the Carson City School Board and an education analyst for the Nevada Policy Research Institute. ‘I am not aware of one study that shows investing in all-day kindergarten will make any impact on the incarceration rate,’ Enge said. He said the Nevada education system's problems occur at the secondary level, not in early grades.”

The lesson of the 2007 Legislature is that the public wants substantial education reform and won’t settle for the expensive, business-as-usual “feel good” placebos that the full-day kindergarten push epitomized.

Until reform-oriented principles — such as those found in Sen. Barbara Cegavske’s bills to restructure the state education system (S.B. 540) and provide choice for special needs students (S.B. 158) — are taken seriously, the establishment’s budget-expansion balloons will continue to be popped.

Joe Enge is education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.