Is Nevada public education ‘adequate’?

Joe Enge

Has the Silver State’s public education system become an underperforming, expensive, and obsolete security blanket?

Is it really age-appropriate for a society facing global competition and technology advances in the 21st century?

These are heretical questions, judging from the study commissioned by the Legislative Committee on School Financing Adequacy. Though these are the central issues, they will not be addressed by the committee’s study. Interested only in what is best for the system—not students nor the larger community—the study presumes from the beginning that lack of funding is behind our educational woes.

Take heed, Nevada citizens and businesses. The “adequate education funding” study currently underway will report that per pupil spending needs to be increased to meet the academic goals set by the state. It is specifically designed to produce this result and only leaves two essential variables in play—funding and goals (standards). It purposefully presents legislators with a dilemma: increase taxes for education spending or lower the demands for student achievement placed on public schools. The attitude is: How dare Nevadans ask for results without providing the resources “necessary” to achieve them!

Actually, we have provided funding adequate to meet the standards. The inherent nature of a centralized monopoly such as the public education system is itself responsible for the gap between funding and student academic achievement. To the orthodox public school systems and their apologists—the backers of this study—such a thought is heresy. Hence, it is not a consideration of their study. Nevertheless, it will become a public issue, for this obvious ploy to force Nevadans to pay more for less in education will make it so.

Asking taxpayers to funnel more into the current educational system without success from previous funding increases is a gamble. Likewise with the Legislature’s continuing refusal to open up the state’s closed system to greater parental school choice. The gamble is that the public has become so attached to their non-choice, public school security blanket that they will not question the deceptive assumptions of the study or the financial burdens demanded.

If the “adequate funding” study of Augenblick, Palaich and Associates reports in August, as expected, that per pupil spending in Nevada is too low, parents and taxpayers may not actually storm the Bastille. Most will notice, however, that the meter in their public education taxi always rises without getting nearer to their destination.

The legislation authorizing the education-adequacy project was passed in the late hours of the 2005 Session. Yet the hearings, selection, public input and the study itself all occur when the public and press pay little attention, during the interim between the 2005 and 2007 legislatures. Senator Bob Beers, among others, has vocally drawn attention to the insidious way in which the process has been structured.

The study’s final report is to be in August, just prior to elections and fruitful, perhaps, for the Democratic Party statewide campaign to raise Nevada’s per pupil spending. Or, the time span from the laying of this egg of a study to its hatching could just be a coincidence. Is it also a coincidence that the firm hired to do the study has a track record of bringing in the highest per-pupil figures? Or that the firm is using, for the study basis, what it calls the “professional” model?

“There are half dozen different methodologies that have been used to determine ‘adequate’ funding levels,” notes Sen. Beers. “They span the spectrum from detailed cost estimates putting a figure on each component, to comparing different states, districts and schools, to asking ‘experts’ their opinion. The interim committee rejected proposals to study multiple methods and instead selected (on a 4-2 vote) the company that intends to concentrate on the historically most liberal (expensive) methodology—of asking experts their opinions.”

The bottom line is they want our money, will tell us what is best for us, and will charge even more if we dare to ask for real results.

It reminds me of waiters I used to see in Soviet-era restaurants. The Soviet commissars were truly baffled as they poured more resources into their structurally flawed system, looking in disbelief as it crumbled around their ears.

The American educational commissars are asking us to do the same.

The next meeting of the Legislative Committee on School Financing Adequacy is June 2, 2006 at 9:30 a.m. in room 2135 of the Legislative Building in Carson City. Videoconference is room 4401 of the Grant Sawyer State Office Building in Las Vegas.

Joe Enge, a 15-year social studies and English teacher, is a policy fellow of the Nevada Policy Research Institute.