Las Vegas Sun

November 28, 2015

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On education, Southern Nevada is ‘a state apart’

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Last month, Nevada introduced its new marketing slogan: “A world within. A state apart.” While the tag line’s value as a tool for economic development and tourism is debatable, it does offer a fitting description of how the state prioritizes K-12 and higher education between Northern and Southern Nevada.

After all, only in a world unto itself would elected officials expect to be taken seriously when they publicly claim — as university system Regent Ron Knecht did at last month’s Board of Regents meeting — that the inequities between the southern and northern higher education institutions simply reflect economy-of-scale differences.

He must have missed the report prepared by then-Chancellor Jim Rogers detailing long-standing regional differences in per-student allocations, statewide programs, capital investments and scholarships.

Not to be outdone, Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey went so far at a recent budget hearing to question the existence of any geographic inequities in higher education. One might expect Hickey to at least be aware of these issues given that he served on the interim committee asked to study how to make higher education funding equitable.

Apparently, in such a world, a chancellor who presides over a system administration that has more full-time employees (190) and a significantly larger operating budget ($52 million) than three of the institutions it oversees has “a light staff.”

This is also a world where a four-year college in Southern Nevada — housed in an abandoned vitamin factory and where students are being asked to underwrite the costs of future academic building — offers equivalent educational opportunities to a state-built, 10-building, northern community college with seven satellite campuses.

While the factually challenged rhetoric offered by some to frame the latest tug-of-war over Nevada’s scarce education dollars is predictable, the state’s growth and increased diversity add a new wrinkle to these schisms.

So, when Gov. Brian Sandoval’s budget redirects over $9 million from UNLV (48.3 percent minority, according to the Nevada System of Higher Education’s 2010-11 Diversity Report), Nevada State College (50.8 percent minority) and College of Southern Nevada (53.9 percent minority) to UNR (26.5 percent minority), Great Basin College (22.7 percent minority), Truckee Meadows Community College (32.9 percent minority) and Western Nevada College (25.8 percent minority) while also carving out more than $20 million in appropriations for the northern institutions, this is not just another instance of the budget sleight of hand that undermined confidence in the old funding formula and, by extension, the NSHE.

Rather, these types of shell games, which are detailed on my company’s blog, send a clear message that Southern Nevada and its large minority population is “a state apart” that is undeserving of equal educational opportunities. Indeed, in one of the most diverse states in America, only the NSHE could find a way to take money from minority students to maintain a status quo that privileges those who attend school in the north and call it reform.

As glaring as these inequities are, they pale in comparison to K-12 education. Here, Nevada relies on a funding apparatus (The Nevada Plan) that was created in 1967 when the state’s population was 400,000 with few minorities in the mix. Consistent with a policy from an era when the state was known as “the Mississippi of the West,” Nevada, as a recent consultant report noted, “is one of only two states that does not fund low income/at-risk students, English-language learners, or gifted and talented students.”

Unfortunately, the governor’s executive budget does little to align educational policy and funding with the state’s present demographics that, according to a recent study issued by the Lincy Institute, includes more than 70,000 English-language learners in Southern Nevada. By choosing not to fund ELL in any meaningful way, Nevada is knowingly setting these students up for failure that few will overcome.

There are, of course, a number of bills before the Legislature that significantly increase opportunities for at-risk and ELL students (for example, Assembly Bills 162 and163 and Senate Bills 182 and 504). Despite the good intentions and hard work of these bills’ sponsors and co-sponsors, without additional revenue, the bills are unlikely to be funded as presently written, given Sandoval’s “no new taxes” mantra and the super-majority tax threshold that allows a handful of legislators (many of whom represent constituents who have received outsized appropriations for decades and now lobby to be “held harmless”) to dictate state revenue policy.

Of course, Nevada is not the first state to face these issues. However, the situation here is exacerbated by the fact that the region that is treated as “a state apart” when it comes to education appropriations is the very same region that generates more than 80 percent of the general fund revenue that is centralized and redistributed to fund K-12 and higher education elsewhere in the state.

As a consequence, the present policy of the state is to take tax dollars generated in a majority-minority county and allocate it to more generously support the education of an overwhelming white population that contributes very little to the state’s coffers.

Hopefully, Nevada’s political leaders realize how vulnerable the state is to 14th Amendment challenges like those brought in neighboring Arizona, California and Colorado. A series of costly, drawn-out, legal battles followed by judiciously imposed remedies is not in anyone’s interest; particularly politicians running for office whose victories depend upon winning significant votes in Clark County.

Instead, let’s recognize that present policies are fundamentally unfair and set Nevada apart by finding an effective and immediate legislative solution that gives all our students the same educational opportunities regardless of where in Nevada they call home.

Andres Ramirez is the president of the Ramirez Group, a local public relations firm, and vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee’s Hispanic Caucus.

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