Neff said

Andy Matthews

In her May 18 column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal (here), Erin Neff bemoans Gov. Gibbons' call for state agencies to cut up to 14 percent from anticipated 2009-2011 budget levels.

Neff invokes all of the usual, tired arguments we so often hear from the Left when the issue of spending cuts arises. Her greatest concern, again predictably, is that the cuts won't leave enough funding for public education.

"We already have a system that often combines national leading growth with the nation's lowest funding levels," she writes.
"Yet in Nevada, where schools receive less money per child than anywhere else, some people still defend the status quo by trying to tweak the numbers to make them seem better than what might characterize a backwater."

Such "tweaking," actually, would be better described as "correcting the record." It's been pointed out in several quarters now that it is only through the Left's own "tweaking" of the numbers that Nevada brings up the rear in per-pupil spending.

But never mind that. Let's, for the sake of argument, accept Neff's premise. Problems with her logic still abound.

First of all, what's so bad about being last in spending? If we rank the states, one through 50, in terms of per-pupil spending, the fact is that someone will have to rank last. It doesn't matter if every state spends more than a trillion dollars a year on each of its students. Some state will still rank 50th – dead last. Does that necessarily mean that the 50th-ranked state is short-changing its kids? Of course not. So why should we assume that being last or near the bottom in spending means, ipso facto, that spending levels in that state are too low? We shouldn't.

But isn't the consistently shoddy performance of Nevada's public education system proof that our alleged stinginess is taking a gruesome toll? Neff certainly thinks so.

"Schools [sic] districts are quite aware what education will look like if they cut another 14 percent," writes Neff, who also points out that "[t]his year Nevada was ranked D+ for education – 45th overall in the nation – by Education Week's 'Quality Counts' report card."

But does the correlation between spending and performance that Neff is obviously implying here actually exist?

As NPRI's own Steven Miller pointed out last week, the answer is no, spending more on Nevada's education does not lead to higher quality education. Miller explained in a May 15 NPRI Commentary that in Nevada, "per-pupil spending in inflation-adjusted dollars more than doubled since the early 1960s, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Yet more than 40 percent of fourth-grade students score as functionally illiterate – i.e., 'below basic' – on the nation's most-used report card."

In other words, regardless of how it compares to other states in terms of spending levels, Nevada over the past 40-plus years has made a very significant financial investment in its public education system – and has received a poor return on that investment. In addition, reviews of education spending across the country also fail to show any significant tie between funding levels and student achievement.

Given our habit of drawing conclusions based on, you know, facts and logic, we at NPRI look at all of this and are skeptical that the way out of our educational funk is through ever-greater spending. Neff equates this mindset to a defense of the status quo – and in doing so gets things completely backwards. After all, the "status quo" for four decades has been to assume, as Neff does, that our educational deficiencies can be addressed with more money.

If Neff really wants to challenge the status quo, she ought to come out in favor of something other than the same approach that has failed us for so long.