Bill still under wraps, but details emerging about proposed school funding formula overhaul

Jackie Valley
Jackie Valley
Michelle Rindels
Michelle Rindels

Select education, business and political leaders who attended private briefings this week about the long-awaited bill to modernize the state’s K-12 funding formula had mixed reactions about the plan, with some saying it looks promising and others going so far as to suggest it would be “devastating” to some rural school districts.

The bill has not been unveiled publicly and reporters were not allowed to attend briefings or review the PowerPoint presentations; Democratic bill sponsor and Sen. Mo Denis said again Thursday that the bill would be coming “any day now.” But analyst Jeremy Aguero, who has been crafting the funding formula overhaul, discussed key concepts during invitation-only meetings over the past week.

“There’s a ton of questions and we only got to the tip of the iceberg,” said Republican Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, who was briefed on the bill with Republican colleagues Wednesday and said it appeared a lot of work had gone into the proposal. “I think we’re all going to end up in the position of Nancy Pelosi and the Affordable Care Act. We have to pass it to know what’s in it, and that’s a scary place to be when we’re dealing with the single largest policy bill any of us will probably ever face.”

The forthcoming bill seeks to dramatically transform the 52-year-old Nevada Plan, which details the complicated existing funding formula that operates like a seesaw, with state funding to districts decreasing as local funding increases. But the decades-old formula has been widely panned as an inadequate model that focuses too much on sparsity vs. density and doesn’t take into account the needs of today’s students.

Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara, who met with Gov. Steve Sisolak on Wednesday, said he hasn’t seen a draft of the bill but feels “confident” about it based on the concepts that have emerged. The proposed new formula, he said, includes a base per-pupil guarantee and weighted funds for specific student populations.

“This is a long game for us,” he told reporters ahead of an event in Las Vegas on Thursday. “This is really a marathon. We’ve got to make some immediate changes now and, in the long run, we’ll be able to transform our public education in K-12 here.”

So what lies within the pages of, arguably, the most anticipated bill this session?

Those briefed in the private meetings described to The Nevada Independent a “student-centered” approach that sends extra dollars toward students who are learning English as a second language, living in low-income households, have special-education needs or are gifted and talented. That’s in contrast to the existing model, which provides extra funds for entire schools with high English-learner or low-income populations.

Although it’s set up as a weighted formula that multiplies the base funding by a multiplier for students in specific need categories, the full transition would require additional money over time.

The proposal doesn’t include new revenue, which doesn’t come as a surprise in spite of calls for more education funding. Denis has repeatedly said the bill seeks to fix the allocation method only — re-dividing the pie but not expanding it.

“It is a step in the right direction in the sense that there’s an overhaul in the system that acknowledges that they have to distribute funds not just more equitably but also more efficiently,” said John Vellardita, executive director of the Clark County Education Association (CCEA). “There’s an acknowledgement in the new plan that Southern Nevada has essentially been subsidizing the rest of the state.”

The new model also reworks the seesaw dynamic between local and state funds.

The existing formula could be visualized as a Venn diagram, with the state and local tax revenue supporting schools but some local funds residing “outside of the Nevada Plan” and providing a boost to schools in just their home county. Under the new formula, according to people who have seen the plan, all local revenue for schools would go into the same pot and be redistributed to schools statewide.

That could be a potential sticking point for certain mining-rich rural counties, which are able to supplement the funds they’re designated as part of the Nevada Plan with thousands more per pupil in local revenue. Under the new model, they would remit that to the benefit of the whole state.

The model also aims for more simplicity and transparency.

Some lawmakers have taken issue with the fact that when people only look at the “basic school support guarantee,” they aren’t counting funds from the federal government, “categorical” programs like Zoom School grants, class size reduction allocations or additional local revenues that counties kick in. The amount Nevada puts toward schools seems especially low using just the basic support guarantee figure, which stands at $5,967 this school year, as opposed to the $8,165 in total annual per-pupil student expenditures, according to the National Education Association.

The new formula would combine many of those disparate streams of funding into a single pot. On the plus side, that would give the public an easier view of whether education funding overall is going up. A potential pitfall is that it could be harder to tell whether funding approved for specific purposes, such as class size reduction, is accomplishing those policy goals.

It’s unclear how categorical funds would fare in the immediate future if lawmakers approve the bill. In the long run, though, they’d likely disappear as the weighted funding formula reaches full implementation.

“Categoricals and weights can’t coexist,” Vellardita said.

The weights are expected to be small allotments to students with special needs at first. While a bill in 2017 recommended that schools get 1.5 times the basic per-pupil funding for each student considered an English learner, the funding formula might start out with something low — perhaps a 1.05 weight —  simply because the state doesn’t expect to have the money to reach some of those 2017 goals.

People with knowledge of the plan say the money in the large pot meant for per-pupil support would be available for collective bargaining, while money destined for weights would not be.

Rurals vs. Clark County

Observers say the formula will provide a bump in funding to the Clark County School District, the state’s most populous.

But any funding decreases to rural school districts wouldn’t be enacted like the flip of a light switch. Instead, leaders briefed on the plan say it includes hold-harmless provisions designed to shelter those districts from any automatic money losses — essentially giving them time to adjust to the new financial reality of the model.

Still, it has some lawmakers concerned. While the state may be holding a rural school district harmless and not reducing their funding under the new model, they also may not be allowing for growth in funding should enrollment rise.

Some rural districts have stagnant or declining enrollment numbers and wouldn’t feel the pinch. But Republican Assemblywoman Robin Titus said she worries that if fast-growing Fernley drives up the enrollment in the Lyon County School District, the district would have no way to handle the influx with its frozen funding levels.

“This new formula doesn’t allow for any growth. It’s going to keep things flat, which is devastating,” said Titus, who was briefed on Wednesday. “We’re going to just put more kids in the classroom so there’d be less education? It’s just going to come from class size of 25 to 30 or something? How do we resolve that? Because we’re not getting any additional money for these pupils.”

The current plan is to approve a new funding formula this session but not have it take effect until after the 2021 session, Kieckhefer said. Districts would operate on the Nevada Plan but could calculate how their budgets would work under the forthcoming formula, and advise lawmakers of any adjustments they need enacted in 2021.

Chris Daly of the Nevada State Education Association said the Legislature’s redistribution project may not work well because there is no major influx of new funding for schools.

“I think that you would have new winners and losers,” he said. “And our position on a new funding formula is absolutely we need a new funding formula, we need greater levels of equity in our system, but overall, we need to infuse the system with new resources so that all Nevada students can succeed.”

With just 25 days left this session, lawmakers have received a fair amount of criticism for the seemingly late arrival of the funding formula bill. But it may speak to the complexity of the task. Because education funding takes up the lion’s share of state budgets, overhauling the allocation method tends to be a lengthy process, said Zahava Stadler, director of policy for EdBuild, a nonprofit focused on state funding for public education.

“I don’t think it’s that unusual for school funding bills to take a while to hash out, simply because there’s such a significant impact on all the communities in the state,” she said. “By the same token, you’ll also want a fair amount of discussion once the bill drops.”

Another education battle

While the public awaits the formal introduction of the funding formula bill, school officials, legislative leaders and Sisolak are negotiating ways to make promised teacher pay raises a reality.

The Clark County School District did not include a 3 percent cost of living raise or a 2 percent merit pay increase in its tentative budget, which was unveiled last month. Jara said the district can’t afford the pay bumps given the revenue it expects to receive from the state for the upcoming biennium. The announcement frustrated educators and further escalated demands for more K-12 state funding.

And last week the nonpartisan Guinn Center for Policy Priorities released an analysis showing that Sisolak’s proposed budget falls about $107 million short of providing enough money for the raises.

Jara told reporters that Nevada’s 17 district superintendents, State Public Charter School Authority and new State Superintendent Jhone Ebert met with Sisolak and legislative leaders Wednesday to discuss the situation. He said the group received an assurance from state leaders that they would partner with them to find a solution, even if it meant weekly meetings through the end of the legislative session.

Even so, Jara said he won’t be including the salary raises in the district’s final 2019-2020 budget, which the Board of Trustees is set to adopt May 20. If the state comes up with additional money, the district would amend the budget later.

“I’d rather add money than speculate,” he said.

Meanwhile, CCEA members are voting this week on whether to authorize a strike next school year to push for better funding. Voting began Tuesday and ends Saturday.

Jara said the district is working with its legal division and labor attorneys to take unspecified next steps should the teachers’ union vote to strike, which is technically forbidden by Nevada law.

“We are preparing; I understand where their position is,” Jara said. “I have to make sure we continue the integrity of this organization, this school system, and I will take the necessary steps to make sure our students are learning.”


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