Education bureaucrats’ unquenchable thirst

Patrick Gibbons

Over the last decade the various teachers unions across the country have expanded their operations into the courtroom. Unions have threatened, and even successfully litigated, "adequacy" lawsuits across the country, to force states to increase funds to K-12 education.

On Tuesday, Lynn Warne, president of the Nevada State Education Association, threatened such an adequacy lawsuit.

But what exactly is "adequate" funding?

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that during the 1959-60 school year, Nevada spent $430 per pupil. By the 1999-2000 school year, Nevada was spending $6,145 per pupil. After adjusting for inflation, Nevada spent about 146 percent more per pupil in 2000 than it did in 1960.

Despite this drastic increase in funding, Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Jim Rogers recently lamented the decline in educational quality during that span:

What then has made the Nevada education system go from good to average to less than average since the 1960s when Nevada's high schools won multiple awards for being among the best in the nation?

Inadequate spending certainly hasn't been the problem. We've increased per-pupil spending even further since 2000. The Clark County School District, for example, spends 15 percent more per pupil today than in 2000. But to some, of course, whatever we spend is never enough.

The claim that Nevada funds education inadequately is false. But even beyond that, the per-pupil figures reported by the education establishment don't paint an accurate picture of how much is actually spent to educate a student in the Silver State. Simply put, Nevada's policymakers calculate per-pupil spending by excluding hundreds of millions of dollars in education-related expenses.

Not only do they exclude very costly capital projects and debt service funds, but they also don't count dollars spent on federal programs, food services and special service funds. The latter — to name just a few — can include classroom-size reduction, all-day kindergarten, special-education programs, reading programs, mentoring programs, advanced-placement programs, drop-out prevention programs, professional development and teacher bonuses.

The Nevada Policy Research Institute recently looked at the total expenditures that each school district reported to the state and then divided by the student enrollment. Average per-pupil spending for the 2008-09 school year in Nevada was $13,052. Around the state, spending ranged from $10,899 in Churchill County to $49,551 in Eureka County. Clark County School District spent $13,387 per pupil, and Washoe County, the second-largest school district, spent $11,393 per student. The full report, titled "Funding Fantasies: Nevada K-12 education spends more than you think," is available at

In total, for the 2008-09 school year, Nevada's school districts budgeted $5.4 billion from their various sources to spend on K-12 education. Unfortunately, neither the state nor the various school districts make a strong effort to determine how effective the spending is. In fact, state legislators and school district administrators mandate that many programs be funded regardless of their impact. This top-down, centralized approach to public education is ineffective, wasteful and stifles innovation. It does not, however, justify hiding the true cost of education in the Silver State.

Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.