Some Nevada lawmakers see an opportunity this year to replace the state's half-century-old public education funding formula with what they say is a more equitable one that provides more resources to English language learners and special education students.
But details of the proposed weighted funding system aimed at increasing the chance of academic success for all students remain elusive. Though a bill has been proposed by state Sen. Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, the text of the proposal has not been released by Denis' office.
Meanwhile, other public policy experts say funding levels are not the primary problem with public education in Nevada.
“The concept of a weighted funding formula is an improvement over trying to address students' diverse needs through a one-size-fits-all, centrally planned approach to education,” Michael Schaus, communications director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute, said in an email. “However, while funding theoretically follows the student, it is still being spent on an overly bureaucratic and wasteful government-run education monopoly.”
Under a weighted funding system, more money would be added to a base per-student amount to help those facing more obstacles to success, such as English language learners and special ed students. A study released last year by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates recommended a base of about $6,000 annually, with at-risk students receiving an additional 30 percent; special ed students, 110 percent; and English learners, 50 percent.
Currently, all Nevada students receive the same per-pupil allocation regardless of special needs, though efforts such as the ZOOM and Victory programs provide additional funds to schools that have higher proportions of limited-English students or students from low-income families.
But if state lawmakers were serious about ensuring that funds benefit students in need, they would opt for education savings accounts, according to Schaus. ESAs would direct a portion of per-student spending for English language learners, low-income and special-needs students to a learning environment that would best meet their needs – be it public or private, he said.
“At the end of the day, education policy should be about making sure students are free to find the classrooms and learning environments that best suit their needs – not focusing on increasing the budgets for classrooms that are currently failing to do so,” Schaus said.
Educate Nevada Now (ENN), a nonpartisan organization that advocates for funding reform and equitable education opportunities for all students, argues that overall funding for public education in the state needs to rise. A transient occupancy tax increase in 2009 and a 2017 tax on recreational marijuana were billed as ways to help schools, but they have not resulted in a net increase of education funding, according to ENN officials.
Amanda Morgan, ENN's legal director, stressed that the state needs to move to a cost-based funding formula that ensures all students have the resources they need to succeed. State officials should take the work of the Augenblick, Palaich and Associates study and use it to develop a rational funding formula that would apply to students statewide, Morgan said.
“If anything that comes from the legislature takes from Peter to pay Paul ... it's really a nonstarter,” she told Watchdog.org. “... This can't be just shifting money around.”
The marijuana and hotel room taxes did not end up being a net funding gain for education, according to Morgan. Instead, the funds were shifted around to other programs.
“We need to stop the supplanting and start supplementing,” she said.
Although Nevada's categorical programs have benefited students in certain locations, they have a number of drawbacks, according to Morgan. A school that hires a reading specialist using categorical funds could see those funds cut in future years based on the whims of the legislature, she said.
“Categoricals have to be reauthorized every session ... so it's very unreliable,” Morgan said.
Legislation creating a new funding formula should begin by using the revenue sources that were originally earmarked for education, with the possibility of increasing funds for schools in the future as lawmakers better prioritize student needs, according to ENN.
“We have new revenue sources,” Morgan said. “... Let's start using these things the way they were intended to be used.”
Kenneth Retzl, director of education policy for the Kenny Guinn Center for Policy Priorities in Las Vegas, said the current funding formula takes into account that it's costlier to educate rural students than it is to educate those in urban areas.
“However, the current plan does little to acknowledge that different students (perhaps sitting next to each other) require different resources to provide a quality education,” Retzl told Watchdog.org in an email.
A key hurdle for a legislative solution will be how not to penalize rural school districts receiving a higher level of funding, he said.
“There are several groups looking into this issue to see how to hold rural counties harmless in the change to a different funding formula,” Retzl said.
And a key difference between categorical programs and a new weighted formula is that categorical funds go straight from the state to the designated schools and do not follow the student, he said.