We’ve all heard the rallying cry.
“Nevada must invest more heavily in its underfunded and underperforming schools,” says the education lobby, popular media outlets and left-leaning academicians. “The state’s per-pupil funding for education has long trailed the nation,” assert editorialists at the Las Vegas Sun, adding, “…the state doesn’t spend enough on education, period.”
It’s a popular narrative — one Nevadans have heard over and over. The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teacher union, claims that Nevada spends the least on a per-pupil basis of any state — $1,000 less than the next-closest state.
Those crazy conservatives are expected to respond that spending has little to do with performance and trot out the facts that support that conclusion — namely, that Nevada has nearly tripled student spending on an inflation-adjusted basis in the last 50 years, but results have gone down. Also, cross-sectional analyses of states on per-pupil spending yield little to no correlation between spending levels and academic achievement.
Yes, those statistics are valid and verifiable. To open minds, they demonstrate that how the money is spent is much more important than how much is spent. Policies, in other words, are more important than dollars.
Specifically, a cross-sectional analysis of the states shows that student achievement is strongly correlated with:
- The degree of school choice, including private schools and charters
- The presence of an alternative path to certification for teachers
- High academic standards
- Meaningful teacher evaluations based on student achievement
- Open enrollment across schools and school districts
At the Legislature, sometimes, it’s presumed that this is the entire crux of the argument: dollars versus policies.
Such an assumption, however, would be wrong.
That’s because Nevada actually spends much more on education than the establishment acknowledges. According to the federal Department of Education — the only objective, first-party source of information on state education spending — Nevada taxpayers spent an average of $10,449 per pupil for the 2008-09 school year. Among Western states, that’s actually fairly high. It’s about $900 more than Arizona, $1,900 more than Idaho and $2,000 more than Utah. It’s roughly the same as Colorado and within $1,000 of California, Montana, Oregon, and Texas.
Why don’t Nevada taxpayers hear this? One reason is because Nevada’s method of school funding relies primarily on tax revenues that accumulate directly to school districts, instead of passing through state accounts. This allows special interests to claim that the state itself pays less for education than other states.
That’s only true in a technical sense, however, because state lawmakers create the various revenue streams that accrue directly to school districts — including large portions of property and sales taxes — and have only supplemented these direct funding sources with an appropriation from the state’s general fund.
According to Nevada’s nonpartisan Legislative Counsel Bureau, Nevada is unique in funding schools this way, as 62.6 percent of school district funding comes from dedicated, local tax sources — more than for any other state.
Thus, special interests out to lobby for more school spending can easily misrepresent how much Nevadans really spend on education simply by comparing general-fund appropriations to state-level appropriations in other states. That’s how the National Education Association, for instance, is able to claim that Nevada spends far less than every other state on education.
It’s a disingenuous and misleading claim — designed to harangue Nevadans into coughing up more tax dollars without insisting on additional accountability or the kinds of reforms that have been demonstrated to increase student achievement.
Yes, Nevada’s educational system faces some unique challenges. The system is confronted by a relatively large population of transient, low-income, and non-English-speaking students. However, Arizona faces all of these challenges to an even greater degree than Nevada. But in Arizona, where taxpayers spend $900 less per pupil than Nevada, students are outperforming their Nevada counterparts in both test scores and graduation rates.
Here’s a case where policies have succeeded despite greater challenges and fewer dollars. Arizona was among the earliest states to embrace a charter-school movement, it has multiple options for private-school choice, using both Opportunity Scholarships and Educational Savings Accounts, and it has a meaningful evaluation system.
If lawmakers are ever going to correct Nevada’s educational failings, the political climate must first allow for honest and objective information to pierce the prevailing — yet toxic and misleading — rhetoric. Only then will lawmakers be able to plot out a rational course for building a top-notch K-12 program in Nevada.
There’s no reason Nevada can’t be the “gold standard” of American education. But to get there, political gamesmanship must be replaced with truth and logic.
Geoffrey Lawrence is deputy policy director at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit http://npri.org.