Las Vegas Sun

November 30, 2015

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Sun Editorial:

Invest in education

Nevada needs to do more than make reforms to see schools improve

Nevada 3.0: Education

As the Legislature considers several proposals for education, the Sun asked for a variety of opinions on the state of education in Nevada. It's part of the Sun's Nevada 3.0 project, which is looking at issues confronting the state and ways to move forward. You’ll find:

• A conversation with Nevada Superintendent of Public Instruction James Guthrie

• A conversation with Clark County School District Superintendent Dwight Jones

State Sen. Scott Hammond, a public school teacher and charter school board member, writes about choices facing the state.

Dr. Sonya Douglass Horsford, the senior resident scholar on education at The Lincy Institute at UNLV, writes about a missed opportunity in Nevada.

Ruben R. Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association, writes about what the schools need.

Judi Steele, president of the Public Education Foundation, writes about improving school leadership.

Victor Wakefield, executive director of Teach For America in the Las Vegas Valley, writes about grassroots ways to improve schools.

Another view?

Have your own opinion? Write a letter to the editor.

Nevada’s education system has been rated among the worst in the nation. In the past year alone, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s “Kids Count” report ranked Nevada last, a legislative report put the state at 48th and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave the state’s schools an F.

Nevadans have heard this before over the years from a variety of sources, including MSNBC, which ranked the state 50th in an extensive report last year, or Parenting magazine, which labeled Las Vegas the worst city in the country for education.

Clark County School District Superintendent Dwight Jones bristles at talk about the negative rankings. His district is the nation’s fifth-largest, and with more than 70 percent of the state’s students, it is the focal point of education in Nevada.

Jones has acknowledged the problems and moved quickly to turn things around. He notes that there are some very good schools in Clark County, and there has been considerable progress since he started a little more than two years ago. This past year, for example, there were improvements in reading, writing, math and science scores across most grade levels.

Those improvements are great to see, but there is still much more to do given the deficits Jones inherited. Jones and his staff have plans that should bring more improvements, but Nevadans can’t think more gains will come easily — or cheaply. It’s going to take more money. Clark County receives the lowest amount of money from the state on a per-pupil basis.

There have already been rumblings in Carson City about school funding, and northern and rural lawmakers are concerned about Clark County getting a greater share of the tight state budget. But that misses the point.

Instead of playing around the margins, lawmakers need to confront reality: The state doesn’t spend enough on education, period.

A statement like that will grate on some education reformers who often pit reforms versus money and will argue that all the schools need to do is spend their money more wisely. Although it’s true that schools can spend money more efficiently, and Jones has made a strong push to do so, Nevada doesn’t come close to funding its education system at the national average. According to the Census Bureau, the state’s education funding is among the worst in the nation. The amount spent on instruction in Nevada is almost $2,200 less per pupil than the national average.

The state’s per-pupil funding for education has long trailed the nation. In the 2009-10 school year, the most recent year of statistics, Nevada was ranked 44th in per-pupil spending. In the 1998-99 school year, the state ranked 41st.

School critics have had a large say in the debate in Nevada, and they have worked to try to deny the need for more money. They often point to Utah, which has the lowest per-pupil spending in the nation yet sees good achievement. But the two states don’t compare.

Utah doesn’t deal with the level of special needs, such as the percentage of English language learners, or the pressures put on schools by the lack of a strong social safety net.

Compared with school districts its size, the funding disparity is clear. Clark County receives less per pupil than all but one of the nation’s 10 largest school districts.

Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposed budget would add money for Nevada’s schools, primarily for early education and English language learners, and that’s a good focus and the right start. It just isn’t enough of an investment to pull Nevada up.

That’s not to say there aren’t reforms to be considered and changes to be made. There are. And any additional money has to be spent well and strategically.

But the state can only go so far with what it has, and the truth may be that Nevada has gotten what it has paid for. That can’t be good enough for Nevadans anymore.

If state leaders are serious about improving education, they need to, as the old saying goes, put their money where their mouths are and make a significant, long-term investment in the state’s schools this session.

As a state, we need to stop focusing on how to shift Nevada’s too-few education dollars around and instead figure out how to add more money to the schools.

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