Ed Funding Overhaul Advances Despite Concerns Over Rural Schools

May 31, 2019

Lawmakers in Nevada are set to approve a measure meant to overhaul the state’s education funding mechanism. The measure would, in part, streamline the funding process and move the state to what's called a student weighted funding formula. Supporters say the change would add transparency while at the same time sending money to where it's most needed. Opponents, however, argue this bill would hurt rural districts.

Dubbed the New Nevada Plan, SB543 passed the Senate in a fairly bipartisan fashion this week. The measure seeks to simplify the way the state pays for public education.

In an 18-3 vote, the Nevada Senate approved SB543, advancing a school funding overhaul to the Assembly.
Credit Paul Boger / KUNR Public Radio

The bill’s sponsor is Democratic Senator Mo Denis of Las Vegas. He says the current system is outdated.

"We have a system where we fund education in a way that was great for when it was created, 1967,” he says. “The population in Nevada was 449,000. We have 480,000 students today. We have more students today than we even had people that lived in the state of Nevada in 1967."

To fix that, the new plan would essentially modernize the system by doing three things.

First, it would lump the dozens of taxes and accounts earmarked for schools into a single pot making it easier to see how money flows through the funding process. Second, the measure would require lawmakers to increase funding equal to the rate of inflation annually, unless there’s an economic downturn. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the state would send money to schools based on student needs, rather than school enrollment, a system otherwise known as a weighted formula.

For Denis, this measure brings up a lot of emotions.

“This is a very personal thing for me because this is why we do what we do because we want to make that difference,” he says. “I know we do important things here, but this is one of those things that’s going to change peoples lives for generations.”

If this is approved, Nevada would become the 30th state in the Union, to adopt such a system. That’s according to the New Jersey-based national nonprofit EdBuild, a group that studies how states fund education. Policy Director Zahava Stadler says the move would put Nevada in line with many other states.

“Nevada would really benefit from a more cleanly student-based funding formula that does have that base amount per student and those weights or multipliers for higher needs,” Stadler says.

Under the proposal, an appointed commission would determine a base level of support for each student in the state. If a student needs more help because they’re gifted or an English Language Learner or have special needs, the additional funding or weights would be sent to the district to help support that student.

Sounds simple enough, right?

Well, there’s a hitch.

If this becomes law, Nevada’s largest school districts, Clark and Washoe Counties, stand to see more money from the state. For rural districts, however, there’s no guarantee they’ll see any additional funds because the bill doesn’t include weights for challenges associated with teaching in rural areas. Instead, the plan only ensures that the smaller districts will not dip below current funding levels.

For Washoe Education Association President Natha Anderson, that’s concerning.

“Every child, regardless of zip code, matters,” she says. “That includes the children outside of our zip codes. We cannot set up a standard for our state, to consider our kids of having a 'have and have nots' based on your zip code. That's just not acceptable for us.”

Anderson, along with officials with the state teachers union, has voiced opposition.

They argue that the plan would eventually choke rural schools. That’s because the measure only guarantees to hold rural districts 'harmless' until their funding levels are more in sync with those of the rest of the state.

The reasoning?

The current mechanism appropriates more money per-pupil to the smaller districts than the larger ones, and due to the ever-increasing cost of doing business, school leaders in those districts say that freeze would essentially amount to a funding cut after only a few years.

But for legislators supporting the measure, like Republican Senator Ben Kieckhefer, the new system is a step in the right direction.

“I think this bill is the next logical step in accomplishing those goals of closing achievement gaps, giving every student the opportunity to succeed and truly elevating Nevada’s education system,” says Kieckhefer. “This doesn’t, obviously, address one of the foundational issues which is how much money we are distributing. That was never promised as a part of this bill.

But that argument seems to be a hard sell for some educators. 

Teachers listen as lawmakers discuss efforts to improve education in Nevada during a recent rally in front of the Legislature.
Credit Paul Boger / KUNR Public Radio

At a recent rally for teachers outside the legislative building in Carson, educators from around the state voiced support for one thing: more funding. And that’s key--while SB543 addresses the way the state pays for education, it doesn’t, in and of itself, increase funding.

That’s a sticking point for some educators, like Calen Evans, the STEM Coordinator at Lemelson STEM Academy in Reno. He says lawmakers are ignoring the elephant in the room.

“None of them should be supporting this deal,” he says. “None of the Democrats. None of the educational proponents. None of them should be supporting a bill that does not increase funding the base of education. It has to start there. After that, then we can take on these other individual issues, but we're not even addressing that issue at all.”

If the bill is passed and signed by the governor, the New Nevada Plan will take effect in two years. Regardless of the outcome, if lawmakers don’t address the systemic issues facing Nevada schools, whether it’s the state’s low per-pupil funding, high student-teacher ratios, or lack of counseling services for students, schools will likely continue to rank near the bottom nationally.