No Magic Beans

Patrick Gibbons

Students are back in school now, and pundits, reporters, policy wonks, bureaucrats and politicians are back to debating what the state's budgetary shortfall means for the future of Nevada public education.

Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Jim Rogers, Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley and other state leaders have criticized Nevada for "not adequately funding" education. As they understand it, Nevada's system of public education is woefully inadequate to prepare our students in becoming productive members of society.

Mr. Rogers and Ms. Buckley are correct that Nevada's public education system fails to teach many children basic skills, and that something must be done. When K-12 education fails to teach basic skills, students end up in remedial college courses. When colleges can't prepare students for professional careers, their futures and Nevada's are threatened.

The dangers of an inadequate system of education have been accurately presented. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading exam, only 57 percent of Nevada's fourth graders can read at basic levels or above. This means that 43 percent of Nevada's fourth graders are functionally illiterate.

Research shows that students who cannot read by the fourth grade are on track to become high school dropouts. High school dropouts are at high risk of becoming addicted to drugs and ending up in poverty or in trouble with the law. Deteriorating social conditions strain the government's ability to fund police, prisons and welfare programs.

These are real problems that Nevada's policymakers must address – and quickly.

So is increasing education funding the correct way for the state to address its educational shortcomings? Looking at the U.S. Census Bureau data on overall K-12 spending in Nevada and dividing that number by the student population, we see that Nevada spent $10,420 per student in the 2005-2006 school year (in 2008 dollars).

During the 1959-1960 school year, Nevada's per-pupil spending, in 2008-value dollars, was $3,151.  In other words, Nevada's per-pupil spending has more than tripled since 1960, but our educational problems continue to mount.

By the time a child takes the NAEP fourth-grade reading exam, Nevada has spent more than $40,000 on that child's education. Are Nevada's policymakers really willing to claim that $40,000 is not enough to teach basic fourth-grade literacy skills?

If Nevada continues to pour more money into public education without assessing whether the additional funds are actually producing educational improvement, the state will find additional problems joining our educational woes. Taxpayers may well find it difficult to afford housing, gas, health insurance or groceries as more taxes are raised to "adequately" fund education. State government may find itself incapable of funding basic social services as more and more state spending is devoted to an education system that improves only marginally, at best.

Nevada needs comprehensive reform, not a "magic bullet" of more funding or even the "magic bullet" of school choice alone. Comprehensive reforms would mean merit pay for teachers, simplified alternative teacher certification programs, improved testing methods, increased charter school options, the termination of social promotion when kids still can't read by the fourth grade, tuition scholarship programs, school vouchers, and real consequences for failing schools.

Comprehensive reforms like these were put in place in Florida, starting in 1998. Florida's demographics are very similar to Nevada's, and yet, while only spending $268 more per pupil, the state by 2007 had drastically improved students' reading scores. So great was the improvement that Florida's low-income Hispanic fourth-grade students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches (family of four with an annual income of $37,000) now outscore the average of all students in Nevada on the NAEP reading exam.

The Nation's Report Card demonstrates that after a decade of improvement, even students in Florida eligible for free lunches (students from a family of four earning less than $26,000 a year), have scores which are virtually indistinguishable from the average fourth grader's in Nevada. In 2006 the median family income in Nevada was $66,095.

Rogers is entirely correct that the current performance of Nevada's education system must be improved.  However, if we are serious about seeking progress, we must find ways to make more effective use of the massive resources already provided for our K-12 schools.

Patrick R. Gibbons is a researcher for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.