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Nevada Today

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Democratic Leaders Finally Unveil School Funding Reform Bill, But Is It Really Enough?

After educators, parents, and students waited over three months for action, Democratic leaders have finally begun acting. On the Senate floor today, they introduced SB 543 that they say will begin fixing the 52-year-old “Nevada Plan” that was first developed when Clark County had less than ⅛ of the population we have now. But with no additional revenue included in SB 543, many public education advocates are wondering just how much good this will actually do.

So how much good will SB 543 do if it becomes law? Well, it’s complicated… And by complicated, I mean it’s a very messy situation.

First off, let’s review the (debate over the) meaning of “adequate”.
Photo provided by the Office of Governor Steve Sisolak

Earlier this month the Nevada Economic Forum announced an extra $42.8 million in tax revenue for the upcoming biennium, but that forecast is based on a 2015 payroll tax hike staying in place rather than “sunsetting” to a lower rate. Even if Governor Steve Sisolak (D) and his team either secure enough Senate Republican crossover votes to keep the payroll tax as is or agree with Democratic leaders to find a way to pass a simple-majority budget without needing any Republican votes (either by dipping into the rainy day fund or using LCB’s recent legal opinion authorizing a simple-majority vote on the payroll tax as justification), they must still contend with fulfilling Sisolak’s $107 million promise to give public school teachers a 3% pay raise and deciding the fate of some $211 million in additional investments in various policy bills (beyond Sisolak’s proposed $8.8 billion biennial budget) that are still pending in the Legislature.

On top of all this, the Legislature’s own 2018 interim study concluded that the state must invest another $3 billion per biennium just to fulfill the spirit of existing state law that calls for “adequate school funding”. Considering Sisolak’s prior promise not to raise taxes beyond keeping in place the already existing payroll tax rate, it’s unlikely the final 2019-21 state budget will have anywhere close to what’s needed just to reach “adequate” levels.

Against this backdrop, SB 543 is now online. And just as expected, it’s “revenue-neutral” and merely puts a plan in place to shift existing funds, mostly from Rural Nevada and Washoe County to Clark County schools.

So what exactly does SB 543 do to change the “Nevada Plan”?
Photo by Andrew Davey

For years, several Southern Nevada “community stakeholders” have complained about “Las Vegas being shortchanged”. There’s some actual truth here, in that Southern Nevada schools have received far less per-pupil funding than Washoe and rural schools under the current “Nevada Plan”. However, unless funding formula reform comes with additional funding, SB 543 opens the door to the possibility of the state shifting funds to Clark County School District (CCSD) from the rest of the state. Under SB 543 the funding formula will begin changing in 2021, so legislators can ensure that doesn’t happen next legislative session, but (again) they will have to raise taxes and allocate more funding overall to ensure all school districts are “held harmless”.

And as we dive deeper into SB 543, we can see that it’s not just shifting funds from one school district (or likely, more) to another. While the proposed new funding formula keeps some weights, it nonetheless streamlines the formula by switching from the current “basic support guarantee” and additional “categorical funds” to a Nevada State Education Fund where all money comes in and goes out, and by switching from a system where state funding drops when local funding rises to a more stable K-12 state funding stream.

Yet while this streamlining may make it easier for legislators and citizens to track the state’s public education dollars, it risks undoing the progress made in the past six years to direct more funds to urban, working-class schools in need (mostly in Clark County) by way of “categorical funds” that allowed for the creation of Zoom Schools and Victory Schools that provide more resources, such as English Language Learning (ELL) programs and school meals, to the students who need them the most. So not only does SB 543 carry the future risk of taking from rural and Reno schools to give to Vegas schools, but it also carries the future risk of taking from Vegas inner-city schools that primarily serve working-class communities of color to give to Vegas suburban schools that primarily serve whiter and wealthier student bodies.

This has already been a messy situation. Judging by early reactions, this situation is getting messier.
Photo by Andrew Davey

Yesterday, the Clark County Education Association (CCEA) announced a successful vote to authorize a strike. CCEA leaders claim they will prepare to strike unless and until “students and educators receive the adequate funding we need in our schools now”, though they did take part in last week’s private briefing on what’s now SB 543 and have thus far indicated support for the general tenets of the bill.

Last year CCEA broke away from the Nevada State Education Association (NSEA), which prompted NSEA and the National Education Association (NEA) to form a new union to serve CCSD teachers who want to stay affiliated with NSEA and NEA. While CCEA leaders are now threatening a strike, NSEA leaders have criticized CCEA’s rather perplexing strategy behind the strike threats. And while CCEA leaders have yet to specifically weigh in on SB 543, NSEA leaders have already condemned the bill for the aforementioned concerns about the possibility of taking from rural and urban schools to boost funds for suburban schools while CCSD officials “support this plan in concept” in hopes of securing lasting change to the status quo.

Already Republicans have been threatening to withhold votes from the final budget package, and that’s led to speculation on future “horse trading” where otherwise unrelated policy bills are amended or dropped entirely in order to secure votes for certain bills, including the budget bills. The addition of SB 543, a bill that’s already causing splits among Democrats’ traditional allies, further complicates the road to Sine Die (or on-time adjournment on June 3) by presenting what may be a ticking time-bomb for future sessions, a bomb that’s set to detonate unless the larger issue of overall funding is finally settled.

So if you’ve been wondering when the Nevada Legislature would finally get going on the biggest matters of the biennium, now you know. And now, it’s up to them to sort this out and either find more support for SB 543 or find a better legislative route to both Sine Die 2019 and future equity in public education.

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