By David McGrath Schwartz , Cy Ryan, Las Vegas Sun and U.S. News Agency / Asian
Nevada lawmakers should ditch an anachronistic education funding formula that favors sparsely populated counties in favor of a new method that also awards dollars based on the number of children living in poverty and learning English, according to a new report presented to a legislative panel Tuesday.
Recalculating the way the state distributes funding for kindergarten through 12th grade by those parameters could mean a dramatic increase in Clark County per-pupil funding and may set the stage for yet another north-south money battle.
Nevada is one of only two states — the other being South Dakota — that doesn’t account for English language learners, students in poverty or the gifted and talented, which generally are more expensive to educate, according to the report by American Institutes of Research.
Nevada also shortchanges districts when it comes to the cost of special education students.
The way Nevada funds education in each county has been a sore point, particularly for Southern Nevada, where many believe Clark County subsidizes the rest of the state.
On a per-pupil basis, Clark County consistently receives less state aid than other counties, despite generating the most tax revenue. Last year, for example, Clark County was awarded $5,068 per student. Esmeralda County received the most: $17,508 per pupil.
That’s largely because the state factors in local taxes and then adds money for counties that are sparsely populated and geographically remote.
“The current formula is an elegantly designed funding mechanism suitable for an essentially homogenous rural state,” according to the authors.
In other words, the plan no longer fits a state anchored by a metropolitan school district such as Clark County.
The plan “is outdated,” said Teresa Jordan, professor emeritus of UNLV, who worked on the study. Under the current system, “the less wealthy get more funds and the wealthy get less.”
The state’s current formula, called the Nevada Plan, was passed in 1967 and has undergone some adjustments along the way. But Clark County has grown into the fifth largest school district in the nation.
“We’ve always had a sense that the formula didn’t meet the true needs of our students,” said Joyce Haldeman, an associate superintendent at the Clark County School District. “This report seems to reaffirm that.”
Haldeman said the School District does not support making a sudden change in the formula that would punish rural school districts. Instead, it would support phasing in a new formula on increased funding going forward.
But calculations included in the report — which lawmakers will use to guide the debate over reworking the funding formula — suggest significant changes. If the state began to account for free and reduced lunches, English language learners and other factors, Clark County would see a 6 percent increase in per-pupil funding. Washoe County would see a 2 percent decrease while Eureka County would see a 49 percent decrease. The other 14 rural counties also would see large decreases in per-pupil funding. (The state’s 17 counties also serve as the boundaries for its 17 school districts.)
The report was accepted unanimously on Tuesday by lawmakers on the committee, including two from Northern Nevada. No one spoke in opposition to the report. But details of the recommendations will be discussed at an Aug. 28 meeting.
“At this point, any change that takes money away from Washoe schools would be something I could not support,” said Sen. Greg Brower, R-Reno, who served on the committee.
He said since Clark County pushed for the study and helped raise the money to fund it, its conclusion is “no surprise.”
Indeed, Clark County School District helped pay for the $125,000 study, along with money raised from Las Vegas casinos.
Committee Chairman Assemblyman Marcus Conklin, D-Las Vegas, said Las Vegas has an “incredibly diverse” population. Students speak over 145 languages in the district, according to the report.
Jay Chambers, senior research fellow at American Institutes of Research, stressed to the committee that the report only presented options to the state. It was up to the Legislature to make final decisions.
Jeff Zander, superintendent of Elko County School District, said there is widespread concern outside of Las Vegas about the study.
“It’s a fixed pool of money,” he said. “If you make changes to the formula, there are going to be winners and losers.”
Zander said the existing formula can be adjusted without completely remaking it.