Las Vegas Sun

November 26, 2015

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Southern Nevada lawmakers determined to halt shortchanging of Vegas students


Paul Takahashi

Wright Elementary School fourth graders Lillian Prince, 9, and Abraham Arias, 9, work on a writing assignment on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012.

Nevada Democrats may be loath to engage in a battle to raise taxes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are afraid of picking a fight — particularly when it comes to education.

This session, they’ve decided to engage in a long-awaited battle: the north-south war over how public schools divvy up state funding.

Democratic leaders have said achieving “funding equity” is their top priority. Technically, that means ditching the decades-old funding formula that favors sparsely populated counties in favor of a “weighted funding formula” that directs more funding to districts with large populations of students in poverty, learning English as a second language or in gifted and talented programs.

In reality, that means diverting state funding from Washoe and rural counties to Clark County — which has been historically underfunded on a per-pupil basis.

Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, said achieving funding equity is key to the rest of the Democrats’ education initiatives — including reduced class sizes, expanded full-day kindergarten and creating a pre-kindergarten program for at-risk students.

“Our kids are being disadvantaged in Clark County as opposed to everywhere else in the state,” Denis said. “We really need to look at that and do what is best for all of our kids, which includes Clark County.”

For decades, Northern Nevada has wielded outsized political power in the Legislature, even as the state’s population might has moved to Southern Nevada. Term limits have eradicated that northern power imbalance by emptying the Legislature of veteran Northern Nevada lawmakers who controlled much of the process.

Perhaps most important to that equation is the absence of former Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, who almost single-handedly blocked funding reform during his tenure in Carson City.

Democratic leaders from Las Vegas apparently have made the calculation that now is the time to level the playing field.

But they have a new northern foe to contend with — Gov. Brian Sandoval, who hails from Reno.

According to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jim Guthrie, the governor has no appetite to engage in the funding equity fight this session. Instead, Guthrie said Sandoval plans to convene a working group of education stakeholders in Nevada, as well as national funding formula experts, to craft a new formula.

But he won’t do it until September, months after the 2013 legislative session ends, Guthrie said.

“The governor absolutely agrees this is important,” Guthrie said. “The current formula is so complicated more people in this state could explain Einstein’s theory of relativity than could explain how the schools are funded.

“This is a big deal. But to be able to craft something in the next three to four months, color me skeptical that it can happen.”

Denis disputes that.

A special committee of lawmakers spent the past two years studying the issue. A consultant’s report from that committee recommended Nevada move to the weighted funding formula. It’s the second consultant’s report to make the recommendation.

Nevada is 1 of just 14 states that don’t consider low-income students in its funding formula and 1 of only 3 states that don’t consider the cost of educating English language learners.

Simply recalculating how existing funding is distributed, however, would benefit some counties and hurt others.

According to one example in the consultant’s report, Clark County could stand to see a 6 percent increase in funding under a weighted formula. Washoe County would lose 2 percent, and Eureka County would lose almost half of its education funding.

“If a bill reaches the governor’s desk that treats everybody fairly and doesn’t have a whole lot of hurt districts, I would advise he sign it," Guthrie said. "But if it reaches his desk and one or two counties benefit and 15 are hurt, I would advise he not sign it.”

Education officials from across the state have worked to present a united front on the funding equity issue. Clark County Superintendent Dwight Jones and Washoe County Superintendent Pedro Martinez said they would not support a new formula that would take money away from other counties.

Instead, they’d push to expand the entire pie with additional revenue — a difficult scenario considering Sandoval has said he will veto any bill increasing taxes.

Still, Denis is determined to address the issue this session, whether Sandoval wants to engage or not.

“We obviously get to do the things we think are important during session,” Denis said. “This is something we are going to take up. We can’t ignore it. We don’t need anymore studies. We don’t need anymore panels.”

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