He came in promising change, and he actually managed to deliver some. He seemingly overcame Republican intransigence to sign into law major civil rights, climate change, gun safety, and workers’ rights legislation, along with an on-time two-year budget. But now a threatened strike, a lawsuit over the budget, and ongoing structural shortfalls in the social safety net and economic development are (once again) reemerging as key challenges.
So how did I manage to take a crystal ball and view the first year of Joe Biden’s presidency? Actually, I just described the first seven months of Governor Steve Sisolak’s (D) term in office. But really, since certain pundits love to talk about how much “we matter” here in Nevada, we might as well look closer to home at what really matters in the strike threat facing public schools in the state’s largest school district. Spoiler alert: It’s about way more than just one union or one district.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
– Governor Steve Sisolak, during his State of the State speech on January 16
In his State of the State speech in January, Sisolak kicked off his Gubernatorial term with this bold proclamation: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. […] This balanced budget does not contain any new taxes.” While Sisolak went on to promise bigger changes on various policies, policy changes that he ultimately delivered on by the time the 80th Session of the Nevada Legislature adjourned sine die, those have sometimes been obscured and clouded by this one statement.
For years, we’ve been reminded that many of Nevada’s public schools actually do go broke far too often. This largely has to do with the state depending upon narrow bands of gaming and tourism revenue to stay afloat, as well as the state relying upon a 52-year-old “Nevada Plan” for K-12 public education that was developed when Clark County’s population was about 12% of what it is now and the overall state population was more rural and scattered.
Though state public schools finally got a much-needed injection of new revenue in 2015 along with a series of programs meant to correct past injustices for schools in historically underserved communities, then Governor Brian Sandoval’s (R) tax and education reform package only made up ground that was lost in the 2009-2011 budget cuts. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) pointed out in May, when adjusted for inflation, Nevada’s total K-12 public education budgets in the 2017-19 biennium were 16.8% less than what they were in 2007-09. And even if we factor in the “largest education budget ever passed” for the 2019-20 biennium, we’re still looking at fewer dollars going into public schools now (when adjusted for inflation) than what we saw before the onset of the Great Recession.
So what’s really broke(n)…
Right around the time the Nevada Legislature’s Democratic leaders unveiled a school funding reform bill (SB 543) in May that’s “revenue-neutral” in a time when public schools are in dire need of new revenue, the primary union that represents Clark County School District (CCSD) teachers, Clark County Education Association (CCEA), announced a successful vote to authorize a strike. Fast forward to last week, when CCEA leaders set a September 10 deadline (or else, they strike) and pushed turnout for what became such a rancorous CCSD Board of Trustees meeting that CCSD Trustees had to cut it short over safety concerns. Then last Friday, Sisolak and Democratic legislative leaders jumped into the CCSD vs. CCEA fight to claim, “[CCSD] created this mess. They need to fix it.”
Never mind that the state has generally neglected to provide CCSD and other school districts with enough funding to cover standard expenses, let alone the 3% teacher pay raise that Sisolak promised in January or the “column advancement” professional development reimbursements that CCSD administrators long promised teachers. And it’s not just CCSD, as a report released last week by the public education advocacy group Educate Nevada Now shows about a half-dozen school districts across Nevada couldn’t provide Sisolak’s recommended 3% teacher pay raise and didn’t even see an increase in their overall funding.
So if the problem is primarily rooted in state law, why is everyone honing in on one school district, one regional teachers’ union, and one labor dispute that’s happening in one county?
And how do we fix it?
As The Nevada Independent’s Jon Ralston has been saying on social media these last few days, there are no clear “heroes” in this story and there’s been way too much focus on one union contract when the larger structural problem of state public education funding (once again) gets ignored. Yes, CCSD has struggled its way through a number of “internal issues” and CCEA notoriously signed off on the final 2019-21 budget agreement that excludes “column advancement” reimbursement yet includes pay freezes, but we can’t possibly figure out a lasting solution for this problem if we fail to address the root of it, and the root of this problem goes way deeper than CCEA and/or CCSD.
Thus far, the Governor’s Office and state legislative leaders have refused to call a special session of the Nevada Legislature to provide more money for school districts. While some Republicans have occasionally feigned “concern”, Republican legislators have generally used this crisis to push “solutions” (like private school vouchers and charter school expansion) that have only exacerbated the root problem of state funding shortages. In addition, Republicans are currently suing to overturn this year’s budget agreement because Democrats voted to repeal the modified business tax (or state payroll tax) cut that was scheduled to occur this biennium. If Republicans succeed with their lawsuit, the state will face a roughly $98 million deficit that will have to be filled by budget cuts, another tax increase, and/or dipping into the state’s Rainy Day Fund (which should be around $326 million by now).
Again, this problem goes way deeper than one labor dispute in one county. Yet because this one county is the most populous in the state, features the largest school district in the state, and is home to perhaps the most convoluted teachers’ union internal conflict in the state, it’s easy for politicians and pundits to blame CCSD and/or CCEA and/or anyone else involved in this labor dispute for all the woes facing Nevada’s public schools. But in reality this problem is rooted in a “Nevada Plan” that’s long been outdated and underfunded, and any attempt to deflect blame from this central problem is just another weapon of mass distraction being used in this “blame game” that’s not serving any of Nevada’s students.