Making Nevadans pay the nation’s highest sales tax won’t fix our schools

Michael Schaus

Nevadans deserve an education system that actually works for students, not merely one that takes more hard-earned money from working families.

The Silver State already spends roughly $10,200 per student — an amount comparable to numerous states (and nations) that outperform us academically on a regular basis. And yet, the Clark County Education Association (CCEA) is convinced that a simple billion-dollar tax hike will, somehow, fix all our education woes.

Earlier this year, the CCEA announced plans to lobby for a couple of tax hikes that would generate a whopping $1.4 billion in new revenue for public education. More than $300 million would be generated by a higher gaming tax, with the bulk of the revenue (roughly $1.1 billion) coming from an increase to the state’s sales tax.

If successful, the CCEA’s tax hike would give Nevada the dubious distinction of being home to the nation’s highest average sales tax — higher even than liberal enclaves such as California, New York and Massachusetts.

Which is an important point, given that Nevadans already earn less than residents in those other states, with private sector median earnings ranking 47th out of 50 states after cost of living adjustments — hardly the economic demographic equipped to deal with a billion-dollar sales-tax increase.

Of course, The CCEA tells us such a tradeoff must be made if we expect to “fully fund” public education — an argument that is either rooted in deep ignorance of current education funding levels, or outright dishonesty. After all, it’s not as if Nevada is spending pennies on education when the rest of the nation is spending dollars. Our per-pupil spending levels are perfectly in line with states that have consistently higher levels of academic performance, such as Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Florida.

More importantly, we’ve been down this road before. Since the 1960s, per-pupil funding in Nevada has tripled. Just five years ago, Republican Governor Brian Sandoval signed into law the state’s largest-ever tax hike for the ostensible purpose of “fixing education.” And yet, academic performance continues to disappoint.

Maybe, before asking Nevada families to pony up an extra billion dollars in sales taxes, we should figure out why previous spending increases didn’t deliver any substantive gains.

The truth is, what we’re lacking in public education isn’t “more money.” It’s accountability. Clark County School District, for example, is home to more than 100 schools that have consistently received failing grades from the state. Nearly three-quarters of eighth grade students aren’t proficient in reading, and at least one Clark County school was reported to have a whopping 99 percent of students ranked as “below grade level” in math.

And yet, the district’s official evaluations claim there isn’t a single ineffective principal or administrator in any of the district’s nearly 400 schools. The official teacher evaluations made a similar claim, describing a mere 0.1 percent of the district’s 20,000 teachers as “ineffective.”

It doesn’t take a statistician to realize those evaluations don’t exactly mesh with reality. However, it’s unsurprising. The system is so insulated from accountability, even a school where virtually every student is behind in math somehow receives “effective” ratings for all of its staff.

Clearly, the education establishment isn’t interested in holding itself accountable. And, unfortunately, parents in Nevada have little recourse, given the state’s distinct lack of educational alternatives to district schools.

Florida, on the other hand, is an excellent case-study in how parental choice increases accountability, with dramatic results for academic outcomes. Despite spending less per pupil than 48 other states, Florida’s academic performance was ranked fourth in the nation in 2018. The reason for such impressive performance was simple: Florida has some of the most expansive educational choice programs in the nation — giving many parents the ability to hold their district schools accountable simply by leaving.

In other words, Florida managed to spend less and outperform almost every other state in the nation by passing reforms that ensure students have access to classrooms that suit their needs — rather than simply pouring more money into classrooms that don’t.

Nevada’s education establishment clearly has no interest in such reforms. Instead, it has consistently fought against policies that would empower parents with greater educational choice or increase accountability, while simultaneously fighting for an ever-larger share of tax dollars.

Making Nevadans poorer by thrusting a billion-dollar tax hike on them isn’t going to change what’s wrong with public education in this state.

It’s simply going to make it more expensive.

This article was originally published by the Nevada Business Magazine.