Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016 | 2 a.m.
Although the four Democrats competing for Nevada’s 4th Congressional District who spoke in an open forum Monday evening agreed on the broad outlines of education policy, they differed strongly over who would be most qualified to carry out their proposals.
In an hourlong forum hosted by Summerlin’s Sun City Liberal Club, former Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, philanthropist Susie Lee, state Sen. Ruben Kihuen and former Assemblywoman Lucy Flores advocated for an increase in education spending and the state’s minimum wage. The winner of the primary on June 14 will face incumbent Republican Cresent Hardy in November.
Nevada ranked dead last in 2015 in public school education, according to a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
That discrepancy, Flores and Kihuen said, is based almost entirely on lack of state funding.
A 2014 candidate for lieutenant governor, Flores criticized a majority Republican Assembly for not providing adequate funding for Nevada’s schools.
Average per pupil spending nationally was $10,700 during fiscal year 2013, the last available year of data from the census. That year, Nevada spent about $8,500 per student.
“It has always been about funding,” Flores said. “Being under a Republican-controlled executive office of the governor has been incredibly, incredibly difficult.”
Lee, who is seeking political office for the first time, suggested poverty makes classroom success even more difficult.
“We need to meet kids’ basic needs before they walk through the door,” Lee said, “so that teachers aren’t focused on running social programs, and kids aren’t focused on their teeth or their hunger or they aren’t nervous about going back to a dangerous situation at home.”
The candidates all voiced opposition to the Nevada recently enacted school voucher program, arguing it doesn’t serve students from low-income families as much as it should.
The law, which gives some students an average of $5,700 annually to subsidize a private school education, robs needy public schools of tax dollars, the candidates said.
“You’re taking away from public schools that desperately need the money,” Kihuen said. “You’re going to take that money and put it into private schools and rich families that don’t need it.”
Lee said the voucher system doesn’t provide enough financial support for the poorest students to enter most private schools, and leaves them even further behind at struggling public schools.
“I actually think it will have the opposite effect of what it’s intended to do,” she said.
Flores expressed confidence the law could be declared unconstitutional for its inclusion of religious private schools. But Oceguera wasn’t so sure.
“I’ve worked with the legislative council bureau for over a decade, and they don’t get a lot of things overturned,” he said. “I’d be nervous about that.”