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July 28, 2014

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CCSD’s many at-risk kids should factor into funding formula, legislators are told

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Paul Takahashi

A reading tutor works with English-language learner students as Clark County Schools Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky looks on at a Zoom Reading Center on Wednesday, October 23, 2013, at Lunt Elementary School.

Clark County School District officials urged Nevada lawmakers today to allocate more per-pupil funding to students from low-income and non-English-speaking families.

During a legislative committee hearing Friday, School District officials argued that educating poor and English-language learner students is a growing challenge — one that’s made harder to solve with current funding levels.

The Clark County officials made their case for more state funding while testifying before a Legislative committee, which is tasked with studying Nevada’s 47-year-old law governing how it distributes funding to its 17 school districts.

The Nevada Plan, adopted in 1967, has long been criticized by Southern Nevadans for shortchanging Clark County schools, which enroll a large number of English-language learner students and pupils of poverty.

About 51,200 students — or 16 percent all Clark County pupils — are classified as English-language learners. A little more than half of Clark County students — 166,200 pupils — receive federally subsidized school meals. Nearly 8,000 students are homeless, meaning they live out of weekly motels, out of cars or on the streets of Las Vegas.

Clark County officials say these students require more funding to educate than the average student, resources such as wraparound services and specialized English teachers. These students also have among the lowest academic achievement levels in the state.

About two-thirds of Nevada’s low-income students graduated from high school last year, which is less than the 70.7 percent average overall. Only a quarter of Nevada’s English-language learner students graduated high school last year.

“That’s something we should be embarrassed about as a state and as a district,” Mike Barton, CCSD’s chief academic achievement officer, told lawmakers.

However, Nevada’s current school funding formula doesn’t account for the additional cost it takes to educate some of the most challenging and lowest-performing students in the state. Nationally, most states allocate more funding to school districts catering to high-need students.

Nevada is one of just eight states nationally that doesn’t take ELL students into account in its funding formula. The Silver State also is one of only six states that doesn’t take low-income students into account.

“It does require more funding to educate these students,” Barton said. “I worry about schools in our district where the funding isn’t there.”

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Southern Nevada lawmakers have lobbied hard in recent years to drive more funding to help educate ELL students.

Earlier this school year, Clark County received a one-time appropriation of $39 million for ELL students from the Nevada Legislature.

For the first time in Nevada’s 150-year history, English-language learners received additional funding to help them catch up to their non-English-speaking peers. ELL students received on average about $1,850 — beyond the $8,091 given to the average Clark County student.

The funding influx represents a sharp increase from previous years, when Nevada ELL students received $219 in federal funding per pupil over the average English-speaking student.

However, Nevada could do more to make that increase a permanent part of the state’s education budget, said Michael Griffith, a school finance consultant with the Education Commission of the States. National studies recommend states spend 14 percent to 100 percent in additional funding per ELL student.

On average, states that provide additional funding for ELL students spend about 39 percent more in per-pupil funding for ELL students. In Texas, ELL students receive 10 percent more in per-pupil funding than the average student. Maryland allots nearly double the amount of per-pupil funding for ELL students, Griffith said.

Nationally, states are also outspending Nevada on educating its low-income students, Griffith said.

Georgia provides nearly three times the amount of per-pupil funding for students in poverty. In Massachusetts spends an extra $2,702 for poor elementary school students and an extra $3,341 for poor secondary students, Griffith said.

Many states take other at-risk students’ needs into account, other than low-income and ELL students, Griffith added.

In Texas, pregnant students and military children receive additional funding. In North Carolina, students from single-parent households get more money. Oregon students in foster homes or facilities for neglected children are afforded more resources to succeed in school, Griffith said.

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This year, Nevada received $115.8 million in federal funding for low-income students (about $700 per pupil). The Silver State also received $7.2 million in federal funding for ELL students (about $86 per pupil).

While the bulk of that funding went to Clark County, it is just a drop in the bucket, School District officials told lawmakers. Clark County — the fifth-largest school system in the country — has a $2.1 billion general fund operating budget.

“We get supplemental federal funding, but it’s not enough to make a big enough impact,” said Sue Steaffens, Clark County Title I fund director. “Our schools are doing the best with what they have.”

Washoe County Schools Superintendent Pedro Martinez, a former Clark County deputy superintendent and Chicago Public Schools’ chief financial officer, took issue with Nevada’s low federal funding.

While East Coast and Midwest urban school districts receive around $2,000 per student to educate low-income students, Nevada receives less than half of that amount for its poor students, Griffith said.

Las Vegas, which was battered by the economic recession, still has one of the highest unemployment and home foreclosure rates in the country. That has contributed to a growing population of students in poverty.

“I don’t think Nevada advocates enough for (federal funding),” Martinez said, urging for more federal legislative action. “We have the fastest growing poverty rate.”

State lawmakers conceded that lobbying a divided Congress to change the way it divvies up its federal funds for low-income and ELL students nationally will take time. Meanwhile, local school officials hope Nevada legislators can do something to change the state’s funding formula to help some of the lowest-performing students in Clark County.

“We’re trying to create a better base funding,” Steaffens said. “When the floor is low, it’s hard to get to the ceiling.”

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