Nevada education’s funding fantasies

Patrick Gibbons

Over the last year Nevadans have been inundated with talks of budget cuts and tax increases. Critics have said the state has "cut to the bone" and that taxes must be raised in order to "maintain services."

The most vocal of the advocates for increased taxes have been the champions of the public schools — "it's for the children," they've told us.

But how much does Nevada really spend each year on education? Officially the figure ranges between $5,000 and $7,000 per pupil, depending on who is speaking. But these figures ignore millions of dollars in education-related expenditures.

The Nevada Policy Research Institute examined the approved budgets for each county school district, as reported to the State Department of Taxation. NPRI's finding: Total spending averaged $13,052 per pupil during the 2008-09 school year. During that period, per-student expenditures ranged from a low of $10,889 in Churchill County to a high of $49,551 in Eureka County. Clark County spent $13,387, while Washoe County spent $11,393 per pupil.

By comparison, Nevada's public charter schools received an average of just $6,746 per pupil. Unlike traditional public schools, charters receive no funding for capital projects and must pay construction costs out of the per-pupil funding they receive or find private donors. Interestingly, in regard to student achievement, no statistically significant difference appears between charter schools and traditional schools.

This means charter schools do the same job for significantly less. If Nevada exchanged its traditional, centrally planned school system for a system of nothing but charter schools, state and local governments would save a combined total of $2.6 billion this year — almost half what was budgeted in the 2008-09 school year statewide.

Nevada's policymakers already have significant resources at their disposal, but state public-education policies are not decided rationally — at least not if their goal is educating students. Various laws and mandates dictate how taxes are to be spent and what programs must be created, whether or not these programs produce results.

Unfortunately, billions of dollars are at stake each year. This provides powerful incentives for proponents of a high-spending education system to defend the status quo, even if it means poor-quality education for Nevada's young people.

Reform-minded policymakers, however, have options that can help get Nevada moving forward. First, policymakers need to focus on results — not mandating new programs or higher spending. Rather than legislating what schools do, policymakers need to look at the value added by each teacher, administrator and program created. What works should be kept. What doesn't should be terminated.

Nevada also needs to expand open enrollment in traditional public schools, attaching school funding to the individual child and increasing parental choice. This would inject some much-needed competition into the state's public-education monopoly. Public schools will have to offer better services and higher-quality education to compete for funding.

School districts need to relinquish their top-down financial control to local schools, expanding empowerment programs and allowing traditional public schools to become charters. Tuition scholarship programs for low-income or special-needs students, vouchers, and tuition tax credits can all encourage greater fiscal responsibility, and spur greater educational achievement among all schools via the dynamics of parental choice.

Given the fact that Nevada already spends $13,000 per public-school pupil, new taxes were never necessary. What Nevada needs is a system that rewards quality, punishes failure, stimulates innovation and encourages fiscal responsibility.

We can have higher-quality education at a fraction of the current price. What's not to like?

Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. This article originally appeared in the June 2009 edition of the Nevada Business Journal.