Artful Dodgers and ‘National Average Funding’

Steven Miller

The so-called “national average funding” constitutional amendment on November’s ballot would—despite its name—actually raise the total per-pupil tax burden on Nevadans significantly above the national average.

Additionally, contrary to impressions spread by the teacher union, the measure would increase Nevada per-pupil spending well over that of most other states—without reforming public education in any respect.

The union bosses’ dodges are artfully squirreled away in the definitions at the bottom of the long constitutional amendment they are proposing. But even if voters read that far, they’ll have to understand technical accounting categories as currently used by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Otherwise voters won’t grasp what the union is up to.

Which, of course, is the whole idea.

Consider the first paragraph of the union’s proposed amendment. It would require that “the annual per-pupil expenditure of Nevada equals or exceeds the national average.”

Now, most folks would interpret that straightforwardly—so that “the annual per-pupil expenditure” is equivalent to “total annual per-pupil expenditure.” That, however, is not the meaning the union bosses want slipped into the Nevada constitution. What they have in mind instead is a well-designed taxpayer ambush, down in the definitions, that gives them a key to the state treasury.

Their ploy relies on the difference, for accountants, between “current” expenditures and “total” expenditures. Paragraph 5(b) of the measure defines “National average” to mean “current expenditures per pupil … as … determined by the National Center for Education Statistics.” (Emphasis added.)

What, practically speaking, is the difference between total expenditures and current expenditures for the NCES? Current expenditures don’t take into account capital investment and debt-service costs. In other words, defining per-pupil spending in this partial and restricted way allows the union to pretend that all the money Silver State taxpayers have been plowing into school construction and big bond issues for years simply doesn’t exist—and won’t exist in the future.

But it does, and will. The latest complete NCES figures available for the nation show that Nevada taxpayers bear a spending burden for new school facilities that, proportionately, is about twice that of taxpayers in the rest of the country. For the U.S. (with Nevada subtracted) the facilities chunk of total spending was 9.45 percent; for fast-growing Nevada, it was 18.59 percent. Same story with debt service: Whereas the rest of the U.S. devotes only 2.47 percent of total spending to interest expense, Nevada taxpayers pay about twice that: 4.96 percent.

These particular expenditures—which the union is so eager to ignore—bring Nevada taxpayers up to the national per-pupil spending level. Currently, the last school year for which the National Center for Education Statistics has reported average per-pupil figures was 2001-2002. That year, the figure for the rest of the United States was $8,745. Nevada's statewide figure—according to the State of Nevada Legislative Counsel Bureau—was $8,667. That’s a mere $78 under the national average, a far cry from the “thousands” mindlessly repeated by union propagandists and some Mynah birds in the press. Furthermore, reports the LCB, average annual per-pupil spending figure for Clark County’s school district—containing 69 percent of Nevada’s students—was $8,881. That’s $136 above the national average.

So, contrary to union spin, Silver State taxpayers are not shirking any supposed obligation to fund public schooling. Indeed, the NCES numbers for total per-pupil spending suggest that you most likely already pay right at the national average.

There’s more. An average, by definition, is the mid-point between two extremes. And in America, the top extreme for per-pupil spending reflects the skewing power of several educational disaster areas where teacher-union control has driven spending and taxes through the roof—while sending educational productivity into the cellar. Foremost among these disaster areas are New York, New Jersey and the District of Columbia. The Nevada teacher union’s “spending at the national average” constitutional amendment, in effect, seeks to make these disaster areas the state’s new model.

More illuminating than “national average” figures are the national median figures reported by the NCES. “Median” here means that half of the districts in the U.S. received less than the figure and half of the districts received more. The national median figure for the 2000-01 school year was $8,236.

In other words, as of three years ago, before recent increases, Nevada school districts were already receiving more funding per-pupil than most school districts around the country. And Nevada’s state and local education spending has been raised substantially since then.

Steven Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

Steven Miller

Senior Vice President, Nevada Journal Managing Editor

Steven Miller is Nevada Journal Managing Editor, Emeritus, and has been with the Institute since 1997.

Steven graduated cum laude with a B.A. in Philosophy from Claremont Men’s College (now Claremont McKenna). Before joining NPRI, Steven worked as a news reporter in California and Nevada, and a political cartoonist in Nevada, Hawaii and North Carolina. For 10 years he ran a successful commercial illustration studio in New York City, then for five years worked at First Boston Credit Suisse in New York as a technical analyst. After returning to Nevada in 1991, Steven worked as an investigative reporter before joining NPRI.