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November 28, 2014

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As scrutiny of school funding formula grows, a discussion of what’s fair

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Mona Shield Payne

Kindergartner Jonathan Mondragon leads his classmates in a single-file line down the hallway for their first day of class Monday, Aug. 27, 2012, at Cambeiro Elementary School in Las Vegas.

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State Sen. Mo Denis

Panelists at a UNLV forum Thursday called on Nevada lawmakers to change the way the state distributes funding to its 17 school districts — or else face the risk of lawsuits.

More than 100 education advocates, civil rights activists, professors and students gathered at the UNLV William S. Boyd Law School for a discussion about whether Nevada’s school funding formula is fair.

The K-12 funding formula, called the “Nevada Plan,” has long been criticized for shortchanging schools in Clark County, which generates the most tax revenue yet receives the least amount of per-pupil funding in the state. Critics have called the Nevada Plan, adopted in 1967, an anachronism from a bygone era when Nevada was largely homogenous and rural.

During the past 47 years, Nevada’s student demographics have evolved. The state has one of the largest and fastest-growing non-English-speaking student populations in the country. It also has a large number of students from low-income families; more than half of Clark County’s 315,000 students receive federally subsidized school meals.

“Yet we still get the same (share) of money from the funding formula that we got 50 years ago,” said Sylvia Lazos, a UNLV constitutional law professor and education advocate.

Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis called the Nevada Plan equitable but not fair. Denis is chairing an interim task force charged with drafting recommendations for a new formula.

The current formula counts the number of students in a district (kindergartners are counted as 6/10th of a student because of their shorter school day) and divvies up the funding in the state’s “Distributive Student Account” based on economies of scale.

Rural Nevada counties receive more funding because they must bus students farther and purchase outside services, such as food and psychological testing. Larger urban districts, such as Clark and Washoe counties, receive less funding because they don’t have to contract with outside vendors for services, including transportation and food.

“From the perspective of equity, (the Nevada Plan) is probably one of the most equitable funding formulas in the country because it just looks at the number of students and adds a few factors,” Denis said. “But is that really fair? Personally, I don’t believe it is.”

Nevada is one of only three states — the others being Montana and South Dakota — that don’t account for challenging student groups — English-language learners, students in poverty or special needs students — who are generally more expensive to educate and are among the lowest-performing pupils in the state.

David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, said these students face a “double disadvantage” in a state like Nevada, which ranks 37th in education spending but also has one of the most regressive school funding formulas in the country. At-risk students come to school already disadvantaged, then are failed by an inadequate and unfair formula, he said.

Sciarra’s education group, along with researchers from Rutgers University, recently gave Nevada an “F” for not making enough of an investment in education and having a formula that gives the least amount of per-pupil funding to the poorest students in the state.

“Nevada is in a particularly bad shape (for school funding),” Sciarra said. “The good news is Nevada has the ability to do better. It’s not like Mississippi; Nevada has fiscal capacity.”

Nevada must create a new formula that considers the additional cost of educating at-risk and special-needs students, Sciarra said. A good formula takes account of students in concentrated poverty and those who have a combination of risk factors, he said.

Sciarra pointed to school funding formulas in Massachusetts, Minnesota and New Jersey as examples for Nevada to follow. New Jersey has a good formula on the books, but Gov. Chris Christie doesn’t want to fund it, Sciarra said.

“People always say money doesn’t matter (in education),” Sciarra said. “I’m not here to tell you that more money will equal a bump in test scores. You need a culture of continuous improvement and to work with your teachers.

“But what we do know is that states that have fairer systems of funding do better. Massachusetts, Minnesota and New Jersey are competitive globally.”

If Mo Denis’ task force doesn’t deliver on a new funding formula, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund are considering litigation to force the issue.

These civil rights groups have sued 15 states — including California, Washington, Texas, New York and Florida — urging legislatures to pay for services for poor and minority students more fairly and adequately. The Supreme Court in Kansas is expected to issue a decision on a school funding case today.

In Nevada, the ACLU is still weighing its options for a lawsuit, according to Staci Pratt, the legal director for the ACLU of Nevada. The state has not only a moral responsibility but a constitutional obligation to provide fair and adequate funding for its students, Pratt said.

“We’re assessing whether the legislative efforts (to change the Nevada Plan) are strong enough or serious enough,” Pratt said.

However, it’s not enough to change the formula, Sciarra said. Nevada must fund its schools adequately, ensure that education funding is spent wisely and revisit its formula from time to time to ensure that all students’ needs are being met, he said.

As a percent of the overall economy, Nevada isn’t spending enough on education, Sciarra said. States across the country are considering investing in programs — such as universal preschool and full-day kindergarten — that will help at-risk students, he said.

Ruben Murillo, president of the Nevada State Education Association, said changing the formula is just part of the solution to the state’s school funding woes. Murillo called on the audience to support solutions that will increase the funding pie for schools.

The Nevada teachers union is pushing a ballot measure — the Education Initiative — that would impose a 2 percent margins tax on Nevada corporations making more than $1 million in revenue a year.

Proponents say the tax would raise more than $400 million a year for Nevada schools. Critics, including Gov. Brian Sandoval, fear the tax — which could be levied on businesses operating at a loss — would stifle the state’s economic recovery.

Business groups, including the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, have started to argue that Nevada should just change the funding formula to be more fair to Clark County students. Murillo maintains, however, that more money should be raised to ensure all students in Nevada receive adequate funding.

“Where is the money going to come from?” Murillo asked. “You can’t rob Peter to pay Paul and expect the state to prosper.”

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