Las Vegas Sun

March 25, 2019

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Sun editorial:

Nevada lawmakers need to help level playing field for state’s public schools

Now that the 2018-19 school year is in full swing, it seems like an opportune time to present a quiz. Don’t worry, there’s only one question, and the answer is simple.

The question is, which of the following schools should receive a larger share of funding for instruction?

Is it School A, which has a high percentage of students from middle-class or wealthy households where English is the primary language? Or is it School B, where the overwhelming majority of students are from low-income households and are English language learners?

The answer is School B, of course, for the elementary reason that there’s a greater degree of difficulty in educating those students than their more affluent peers in School A.

But in Clark County, the funding situation is completely upside-down. As detailed in a report released this summer by the state Department of Education, not only are schools in low-income areas getting a smaller portion of funding for instruction, they’re subsidizing schools in wealthier parts of the community.

This is no way to improve student achievement overall in Southern Nevada, which is why the report should be required reading for Nevada lawmakers as they prepare for the 2019 legislative session. It shows in black and white why fixes are needed in the way state funding is being allocated in the Clark County School District.

At issue is the way budgeting is being conducted for CCSD’s 350-plus schools, in particular the use of average teacher salaries in determining the amount of funding for each school.

CCSD’s current method is to allocate the number of faculty positions at schools based on such factors as class size ratios and enrollment projects, then build budgets based on average teacher salaries.

But that’s where things go awry. That’s because teachers at schools in more affluent areas generally make higher salaries than their peers in lower-income areas, where schools tend to have more staff turnover and bring in teachers who are relatively new to the profession. Fewer years of experience equal less salary overall. The cycle feeds itself, because teachers at lower-income schools tend to seek positions in higher-income schools after getting a few years experience.

Under the current structure, schools with large populations of English language learners and low-income families generally come in under budget but aren’t allowed to retain their savings. Instead, that funding is used to offset the higher average salaries in other schools and keep the district’s budget even.

The result: Students in lower-income areas are getting a less-than-equal share of state funding despite having greater needs than their peers.

“CCSD’s current local school precinct budget allocation model is fundamentally inequitable,” concludes the report, issued in July by the state Department of Education.

Analysts also found that the budgeting method results in underfunding of elementary schools compared to middle and high schools, and noted that although there is some weighted funding in the formula — for rural schools, magnet schools and 1- and 2-star schools — there’s no such funding for poverty and limited English proficiency.

Reform proponents say the district should adopt an actual-salary budgeting method, which would end the subsidization issue, while also tweaking the state funding formula by adding weighted funding for low-income and non-English-speaking students.

Those things should happen, but at the same time it will be important to not to unfairly disadvantage schools that stand to lose money amid the changes. Short of additional spending on state schools, funding would be shifted away from some schools that are now on the winning end of the equation, including rural schools and magnet schools. Some of those schools could be forced to close, the report said.

The report’s authors recommended that lawmakers jump in by adopting “technical edits” to the law that reorganized the district effective last year. In addition, the analysts called for CCSD officials to work with principals, teachers and parents to craft an implementation plan that would limit disruptions in the system while still reforming the funding approach.

In a recent visit to the Sun, first-year CCSD Superintendent Jesus Jara acknowledged the need for changes in the funding structure and said that eliminating inequities between low- and higher-income students would be among his top priorities.

That was encouraging to hear. Now, Nevada lawmakers should join in and prepare to help level the playing field.