Hutchison, Sandoval and the K-12 reform vs. funding debate

Geoffrey Lawrence

The question has been repeated ad nauseam for years.

It springs from the widespread recognition that, decade after decade, Nevada’s de facto K-12 education monopoly fails to educate students.

It goes: “Is the reason a lack of sufficient funding? Or a failure to effectively allocate resources?”

Revealingly, this debate is not waged among academics or intellectuals who genuinely have in mind the best interests of Nevada’s children.

No, among academics nationwide, a surprising level of consensus exists: To put American children in a better position to succeed in an increasingly globalized economy, the way public education is delivered in the U.S. must be fundamentally reformed.

From left to right, scholars from the Center for American Progress, the Brookings Institution, the Cato Institute and some of the nation’s top universities call for basic reforms to:

  1. improve educator effectiveness,
  2. improve the available talent pool of educators,
  3. introduce market forces into public schools, and
  4. better utilize technological resources to improve student outcomes.

Not all of these scholars necessarily agree on the best particular means for implementing each of these reforms. But the fact that scholars from such diverse backgrounds and viewpoints agree on the need for fundamental reform should be compelling for policymakers.

So, with so much agreement among the experts, why the resistance?

It’s because decisions about public education take place in a political arena. And there, organized special-interest groups wield outsized influence.

Most influential among these groups are teacher unions, school district administrators and other education bureaucrats. Reflecting the current education monopoly itself, they intransigently defend the status quo.

These entrenched interest groups conduct a seemingly intellectual counter-campaign, arguing reforms are unnecessary. The path to improved student outcomes, they contend, lies only through higher spending — restricted class sizes and more and more students, the younger the better, herded through traditional public schools.

This counter-reform campaign has long dominated the political process because these interest groups are organized to support candidates and influence electoral outcomes.

By contrast, true education scholars and academics have never formed a sustained, organized lobby capable of electing to office those who view education through scholars’ eyes.

As a result, calls by Nevada legislators to increase K-12 spending without any substantive reforms echo through the halls of Carson City.

Nevertheless, polls have shown that fundamental reform resonates deeply with the public. Only one Nevadan in 10 thinks a regular public school is the best option for her children, while large majorities favor both charter schools and private-school choice options.

Against this backdrop, it is intriguing to see lieutenant governor candidate Mark Hutchison telling reporters that, along with Gov. Brian Sandoval, he would be willing to give the entrenched interest groups the higher funding they perpetually seek — if they will agree to a package of reforms.

Ending social promotion and allowing parents to choose where to send their children for school — even if that school is not run by a local school district monopoly — would be among those reforms.

Would the entrenched interests and the lawmakers they control ever genuinely consider such an offer? During Sandoval’s first year as governor, he did make some initial headway — securing passage of a state charter school authority and legislation to create a meaningful teacher evaluation system, which has since been delayed.

In the theater of political gamesmanship, Hutchison’s offer is an unobjectionable move — since even scholars from the left-leaning Center for American Progress would agree that significant improvements could be made in Nevada’s education system simply by re-allocating existing resources.

Indeed, at around $10,000 per student, Nevada’s public education spending has nearly tripled in inflation-adjusted terms over the past 50 years and is now significantly higher than a majority of neighboring states.

While higher spending has not led to improved performance in the past, it is conceivable that after genuine reforms are implemented, more money could translate into better results — albeit with a diminishing return and at the cost of higher taxes or less spending in other areas.

What is key is just how deep and solid the reforms would actually be, not how much money would be spent before the reforms are implemented.

For decades, naïve education reformers have been led down the garden path by an establishment well versed in talking a good game while keeping the same-old-same-old in place.

Since trading real education reforms, like school choice, for modest and temporary increases in spending would benefit Nevadans for generations to come, it’s hard to argue with Hutchison’s gambit.

The key is avoiding a repeat of 2013, when education spending increases were not married to meaningful reforms.

Geoffrey Lawrence is director of research at the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan, free-market think tank. For more visit

Geoffrey Lawrence

Geoffrey Lawrence

Director of Research

Geoffrey Lawrence is director of research at Nevada Policy.

Lawrence has broad experience as a financial executive in the public and private sectors and as a think tank analyst. Lawrence has been Chief Financial Officer of several growth-stage and publicly traded manufacturing companies and managed all financial reporting, internal control, and external compliance efforts with regulatory agencies including the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.  Lawrence has also served as the senior appointee to the Nevada State Controller’s Office, where he oversaw the state’s external financial reporting, covering nearly $10 billion in annual transactions. During each year of Lawrence’s tenure, the state received the Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting Award from the Government Finance Officers’ Association.

From 2008 to 2014, Lawrence was director of research and legislative affairs at Nevada Policy and helped the institute develop its platform of ideas to advance and defend a free society.  Lawrence has also written for the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, with particular expertise in state budgets and labor economics.  He was delighted at the opportunity to return to Nevada Policy in 2022 while concurrently serving as research director at the Reason Foundation.

Lawrence holds an M.A. in international economics from American University in Washington, D.C., an M.S. and a B.S. in accounting from Western Governors University, and a B.A. in international relations from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.  He lives in Las Vegas with his beautiful wife, Jenna, and their two kids, Carson Hayek and Sage Aynne.