How much do we need to spend on education?

Patrick Gibbons

One of the biggest Trojan horses for tax hikes has always been public education, wielding the potent cry: "It's for the children!"

Thus armed, politicians like Barbara Buckley and political activists like Erin Neff regularly argue that public education needs more revenue to improve, meaning, of course, more taxes.

They get away with it because how much revenue is actually available to public education is not generally well understood. Numbers ranging from $5,000 to $7,000 per pupil are bandied about, but those figures ignore several other sources of revenue. To get an accurate idea of how much Nevada's public education establishment actually receives to spend on education, one needs to aggregate revenue from all sources — state, federal and local — and then look deeper.

For example, if you take the Clark County School District's 2008-09 budget total and divide by the weighted student enrollment, you get a figure of $13,387 per pupil. Officially, Clark County states that its per-pupil spending is just $7,175 — but this only calculates spending from the General Fund and spending related to classroom-size reduction.

How CCSD spends the resources available to it reflects the real priorities of district managers. Most resources go to debt service, capital projects and jobs for 32,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees. In fact, the Clark County School District employs one employee (FTE, or full-time-equivalent employee) for every 10 students.

Some argue that it's unfair to get to figures like $13,387 per pupil by counting certain funds because those funds are "unrelated" to instruction. Expensive schools and district buildings are regularly cited as examples. But if something is unrelated to students' education, why spend resources on it?  Clark County's official numbers ignore expenditures for adult education, drop-out prevention, library books, early childhood reading programs, assistance to magnet schools, full-day kindergarten, signing bonuses for new teachers, a program for drug-free schools, special education, teacher training and many more mandated programs, including almost $400 million in salaries and benefits. Clearly, apologists are equivocating.

Nevada's public schools need to innovate to ensure resources are spent on programs that provide the biggest results. Nevada could save Nevada taxpayers hundreds of millions in capital costs by creating more charter schools or adopting tuition scholarship/tax credit programs. This shuffles the cost of constructing new schools to the private sector rather than allowing CCSD to erect brand new school buildings, which will cost the district more than $1.3 billion for capital expense and debt service this year alone. Innovative solutions could allow that money to flow into the classroom or even back to the taxpayer.

If the district's goal is to actually educate students, its budgeting process is completely irrational. But with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, defenders of the status quo will fortify the ramparts to ensure that political decisions focus on spending rather than on educating students. For multiple reasons, public schools don't use the vast resources available to them for actually educating children. Political choices are often contradictory and rarely reflect the goal of actually improving educational achievement.

If Nevada wants a rational system of public education, lawmakers need to allow unrestricted open enrollment and ensure that the funds follow the student to whatever school the parents choose. Financial decision-making should be removed from the power-amassing central planners at the school district level, while local schools should be empowered to choose how best to spend the resources. At the very least, putting market forces back into education would encourage far less waste. At best, competing schools will devote more time, energy and resources to the students — improving the quality of education.

Whatever the legislature decides to do, raising taxes "for the children" will be a thoroughly disingenuous exercise. We spend a lot more on public education than policymakers will admit. The problem is, we spend those vast resources poorly.

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