Las Vegas Sun

November 27, 2015

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Political Memo:

Without a clear definition of what ails education in Nevada, would margins tax help?

Nevadans can rest assured: Nothing has changed.

We’re still at the bottom of the barrel in education.

Nevada ranked last in the nation in a recent report, providing more ammunition for political, business and community leaders to sing, all together now, that our education system is failing, and Nevada’s children deserve better.

The assertion leaves a few questions unanswered: If the education system is failing, what is causing the failure, what’s the fix and who should fix it?

Posed these questions, the schools symphony transforms into a cacophony, and discord doesn’t breed the consensus to do something serious, sustained and sensible for the state’s education financing and policy.

Sure, Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval and the Democratic-controlled Legislature came into some money when a group of economists told them the economy was improving, and they agreed to spend that money on class-size reduction and programs to help students who don’t understand English well.

Nobody would call hundreds of millions of dollars chump change, but for about the next 500 days until the 2014 election, voters will be asked to consider a tax increase that would add $1.6 billion to the state’s next two-year budget.

“We continually spend all this time wringing our hands saying ‘Oh, what is the problem?’” said Dan Hart, a political consultant pushing the tax. “The problem is right in front of us. We don’t fund our schools adequately.”

So says the state teachers’ union, the group that got the 2 percent business tax on the ballot and dubbed it the Education Initiative.

Opponents of the tax, led by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, have emblazoned their motto with one of their main messages: Fix Education First.

Despite various reforms the Legislature enacted in 2011, they argue the system needs more reform before it needs more money.

The question of whether Nevada’s schools are adequately funded is before voters because the Nevada State Education Association has pushed the discussion into the public with its margins tax proposal.

But there are plenty of other unresolved education issues.

Business, political, community and advocacy groups have mentioned poverty, teacher certification and recruitment, parental engagement, early education, charter schools, and more local control in the milieu of the state’s education woes.

Former Clark County School District Superintendent Dwight Jones arrived with a reform agenda before he left with the task incomplete. Former state superintendent Jim Guthrie arrived with another reform agenda before he left after disagreements with Gov. Brian Sandoval.

The state will have new leaders with new agendas, and new experts who may offer new solutions, but there’s still little consensus about reform and how to pay for it.

“It’s a matter of how we fund those changes and what comes first,” said Seth Rau, policy director for Nevada Succeeds, an education nonprofit. “There’s always going to be a finite pool of money in this state. You have to figure out: What are your priorities?”

Representatives from the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance spoke with the Sun last week about their roundtable economic discussions. They also addressed education.

“It isn’t the teachers’ union,” said Glenn Christenson, chairman of the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance. “It isn’t the fact that the school district is too big. It isn’t that there’s not enough money there. It’s all those things. Everybody has to be at the table and understand how we can work together with the resources we have, figure out the problems, and what we need to be as a 21st century city from the perspective of education.”

But with the business community pitted against the teachers union for the next 500 days, there may not be much opportunity for finding common ground.

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