Spending in Nevada’s K-12 schools has grown much faster than enrollment over the past two decades, despite the relentless drumbeat from teachers unions that education is underfunded.
This is just one of the findings from Nevada Policy’s analysis of key trends in Silver State public schools during the 21st century. Other areas scrutinized include teacher pay, staffing ratios and student performance. All data was extracted from the U.S. Department of Education’s annual Digests of Education Statistics or reflect the author’s calculations based on these data.
A key virtue of this federal data is that its methodology is standardized across the states, making the figures directly comparable. Alternative analyses that rely on various state reporting fail to fully adjust for differences in the ways states compile or account for educational data, resulting in representations that are often inaccurate.
For example, as the National Education Association – the nation’s largest teachers’ union – acknowledges in an appendix to its Rankings of the States and Estimates of School Statistics reports, “it is not always possible to obtain completely comparable data for every state,” although the union compiles this noncomparable data into its annual reports.
Chart 1 shows enrollment in Nevada’s public schools increased by 42.8% between the 2000-01 school year and the 2021-22 school year, despite a slight decline beginning with the pandemic, when thousands of parents began to withdraw their students.
Enrollment peaked at 496,934 during the 2019-2020 school year before falling to 482,348 during the following school year.
This growth rate is much faster than the national growth in enrollment of 4.7% over the same time period and reflects Nevada’s status as a preferred destination for inward migration and rapid population growth.
In fact, Nevada experienced the fastest enrollment growth of any state other than Utah. Many of Nevada’s neighbors in the Mountain West also experienced high enrollment growth during this period, including Arizona, Idaho and Utah, as demonstrated in Chart 2.
Nevada’s two other contiguous states – California and Oregon – are included in this chart and others for comparison purposes, although the trends in these states are markedly different.
California has experienced a net loss in enrollment this century as outmigration has overwhelmed inward migration.
Spending in Nevada school districts has grown 46.5 percent faster than enrollment this century. Another way of stating that is that spending on a per-pupil basis grew 46.5 percent, moving from $7,893 to $11,565.
However, per-pupil spending grew in all states over this time period. Chart 3 compares per-pupil spending between Nevada and its immediate neighbors. It shows that Nevada began this century spending less per pupil than California and Oregon, but more than Arizona, Idaho and Utah. After 20 years, Nevada still occupies this position amongst its neighbors.
One complication arising from a comparison of nominal spending figures is that the value of the dollar continuously erodes as the Federal Reserve issues new currency, largely to finance federal deficits through the purchase of Treasury bills.
This inflation means that costs increase over time because each dollar purchases fewer goods. Chart 4 adjusts for this by indexing the nominal figures reported by the U.S. Department of Education to constant 2021 dollars using the Consumer Price Index for urban households.
It shows that per pupil spending has increased faster than inflation in California, Oregon and Utah, but has increased roughly in line with inflation in Arizona, Idaho and Nevada. Nevada remains the third-highest spender among its neighbors in real, per pupil terms after Oregon and California.
Major components of spending, as categorized by the U.S. Department of Education, are detailed in Table 1. Nevada’s spending increases this century have been driven heavily by higher spending on support staff.
Spending on food service – such as school cafeterias – and administration have also outpaced overall spending. The per-pupil costs of spending on facility construction and debt service have not increased this century.
Table 1 also demonstrates that only 48.5 percent of spending per pupil is allocated toward classroom instruction, including teacher salaries and school supplies.
This is a slight increase from 46.0 percent at the beginning of the century, but down from a recent high of 53.3 percent during the 2015-16 school year.
Most states allocate between 45 percent and 55 percent of K-12 education spending toward classroom instruction, although Northeastern states tend to allocate around 60 percent to the classroom.
Chart 5 shows that Nevada’s direct neighbors fall mostly within the 45 percent to 55 percent range.
The largest component of classroom spending is teacher salaries and benefits. School districts’ required annual contributions to Nevada’s Public Employee Retirement System have grown substantially this century due to the system’s historically poor actuarial assumptions – a subject to be further explored in the near future.
However, the average teacher salary, once adjusted for inflation, remained steady through the 2016-17 school year. More recently, accelerating inflation has led to a slight decrease in the average teacher’s salary.
Beginning in the 2021-22 school year, Utah school districts began to pay the average teacher nearly $800 more per year than Nevada districts, dropping Nevada behind California, Oregon and Utah in terms of average teacher salary, but ahead of Arizona and Idaho. Chart 6 displays these trends.
Federal data shows the average class size in Nevada grew from 18.6 students in the 2000-01 school year to 20.4 students by the 2021-22 school year. Moreover, as Chart 7 shows, Nevada’s class sizes are in the middle of neighboring states. Arizona, California and Utah host larger classes while Idaho and Oregon host slightly smaller classes.
Metrics for measuring student performance are continually debated. However, the U.S. Department of Education administers the National Assessment of Educational Progress on a periodic basis, which holds clear advantages over other metrics.
First, the contents of this assessment are highly structured, reflecting input from a broad array of interests, the test is uniform across the states and it is designed to minimize sampling error.
Therefore, it is generally regarded as the “gold standard” for measuring student performance and allows one state’s educational system to be directly compared against another on an equal basis.
The test is administered to both 4th and 8th grade students, although the 8th grade results offer the greatest insight into the longitudinal effects of a school system.
In 2002, Nevada outscored only California on the 8th grade reading assessment. By 2022, Nevada improved slightly while some other states regressed, elevating Nevada above: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia.
Chart 8 demonstrates Nevada’s performance against its direct neighbors, showing Nevada is now tied with Arizona, has consistently outperformed California, and now ranks above Oregon as Oregon’s scores have deteriorated. Nevada continues to trail Idaho and Utah.
A similar comparison can be made using the 8th grade math assessment. In 2000, Nevada outscored eight states, including California among regional neighbors.
By 2022, Nevada improved slightly but so did many other states, such that Nevada outscored only seven states.
Chart 9 shows Nevada’s performOance in relation to its direct neighbors. It shows students in Idaho and Utah have performed at consistently high levels while performance has recently deteriorated in Arizona, California, Nevada and Oregon after making gains in the first decade of this century.
Nevada has now overtaken California as the lowest performing among this group.
This short analysis lays out the simple facts regarding how education spending and performance have changed in Nevada this century by relying on objective federal data.
Future analyses will place these facts in context to provide additional clarity. Nevada Policy has developed a comprehensive reform framework that relies on empirical analysis to recommend policy changes that would allow Nevada’s educational establishment to better translate financial resources into student success.
Although that comprehensive plan is now nearly a decade old, almost none of its recommendations have been fully implemented. Lawmakers attempted to implement some of those recommendations in 2015, but key reforms including educational savings accounts and opportunity scholarships were repealed in subsequent legislative sessions.
During the 2023 legislative session, Gov. Lombardo worked to reinstate a requirement that students meet basic literacy requirements before they are promoted beyond 3rd grade. The remainder of the comprehensive reform agenda is fertile ground for policymakers hoping to improve performance.