Rhetoric versus reality

Patrick Gibbons

Before the special session even began, Nevadans were swamped with doomsday warnings about "devastating cuts" to education. The rhetoric, however, never squared with reality.

When asked, the Legislative Counsel Bureau acknowledged that the operating budget lawmakers had approved for school districts' 2009-11 biennium was actually 4.9 percent larger than that for the previous biennium. And Budget Director Andrew Clinger told lawmakers that the governor's proposed reductions to education would amount to just 2.4 percent of K-12 spending — meaning that K-12 education could well end up actually spending more this biennium than the last!

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford didn't like hearing that from Clinger, and went so far as to suggest the budget director, in order to skew public opinion, was playing fast and loose with the numbers.

The reality, however, is that for decades, in the mad race for ever-higher taxes, it is taxpayers who've been subjected to fiercely partisan manipulations of the data. Regularly, the education establishment pretends, for example, that the state General Fund is the only source of revenue. But the General Fund is only one part of the moneys going into K-12 education.

Yes, as Senator Horsford protested, some of the moneys include federal funds mandated to specific programs, like the Free and Reduced Lunch Program. But these programs were sold to the public as ways to improve student learning — full tummies equal full minds, they told us. Is there any doubt that legislators and educators would scream bloody murder if the federal government reduced these funds? You can't divorce entire segments of the budget, such as federal funds, whenever it suits your political purpose.

If lawmakers were to be candid with the public, they'd put the situation in proper perspective, acknowledging all the revenue sources going into the operating budgets.

Federal revenues, for instance, make up about 7 percent of the budget in Clark County and about 8 percent in the Washoe County School District. It is also true that the portion of local school revenues not subsidized by the state could fall further. But these revenues, about 28 percent of all K-12 revenues, would have to fall more than 10 percent below the levels projected in 2009 for K-12 education money to fall below that of the 2007-09 biennium.

In the end, the debate between Governor Gibbons and legislators came down to whether education should grow 2.1 percent or 2.8 percent, instead of 4.9 percent. As it developed, the legislature's "cut" to K-12 spending gave it roughly $200 million more this biennium than the last.

Maybe — during the middle of the greatest recession Nevada's seen in 70 years — we shouldn't have increased funding. Maybe the more intelligent move would have been instituting reforms to use existing funds better.

So will public education be devastated with merely $200 million more this biennium?

If so, it says volumes about the competence of Nevada's education leaders.

Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.