In 2003, Gov. Kenny Guinn, a Republican and former superintendent who helped pass billions to build Clark County schools, pushed through what was then the largest tax increase in history to enhance education funding.
Twelve years later, Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican who responded to the increasing minority population in schools and the lack of accountability, signed the largest tax increase in history during a session in which both houses were controlled by the GOP.
That same session, state Senate Leader Michael Roberson, a Republican who would later allow his lust for power to corrupt him, became the first lawmaker to announce a significant infusion into English Language Learner programs in Southern Nevada.
Yes, despite the Democratic preening of late, the last three major funding enhancements and policy changes in the last two decades have come from…Republicans. All of that money, hundreds of millions of dollars, has been infused into a system producing woeful high school graduation rates — and those who do matriculate often need remedial help in college. And now we stand on the brink of the first teacher strike in Nevada history as members have been misled about what happened in Carson City and what is in their own contract, mostly by a ruthless union leader who is fine with scorching the earth so long as he can claim victory.
As the latest version of the embarrassing and pathetic blame game plays out in Clark County, Democratic leaders are pointing fingers at Superintendent Jesus Jara, Republicans are reveling in the other party being caught in the crossfire and two so-called education unions are engaging in a pointless, circular firing squad.
The inability to treat education funding and policy as anything more than a numbers game at the margins every two years is not a partisan problem, not a school district problem, not a union problem. This is a decades-long collective failure of public and private citizens to recognize that a state is not defined by its sports teams or Megabucks jackpots but by how it educates its children — and what it really costs to do so in this state. The recurring myopia by those seeking partisan advantage for the next election and the incessant wailing by those unwilling to pay a little more have left Nevada as an education backwater, where graduation rates are abysmal and teachers are confronted every day with Sisyphean tasks.
Whether there is a strike (doubtful) or whether teachers get a relative pittance for so-called professional development (likely) matters little in the context of a system that continues to deteriorate despite cosmetic changes. Long after Superintendent Jesus Jara has had to buy a new Peloton and union boss John Vellardita has burned his last Nevada bridge, the core problem will still remain: In the real-life game of overseeing education, with very few exceptions, Nevada’s leaders have bunted to get the runner into scoring position and left him stranded rather than swinging for the fences without fear of striking out in the next election.
What’s so bothersome – nay, infuriating – about this latest kerfuffle (and that is all it is) is how familiar it seems, how culpable all the players are and how small it truly is. They are arguing over a few million dollars when we have a multibillion-dollar problem that has metastasized year after year as the district has become majority-minority and all the players seem to be speaking different languages.
Let me show you the disingenuousness here on all sides:
Sisolak and Democratic legislative leaders did pour some new money into education during the Legislature but this was, as I have said before, The Session of What Might Have Been. They used various gimmicks – punting a still-uncertain sales tax to the locals, taking money from the Rainy Day Fund – to arrive at an arbitrary number and still left tens, maybe hundreds of millions on the table. (More coming on The Table.)
No one expected them to solve all the problems brought on by decades of cancerous neglect in one session, but they made it sound as if they accomplished miracles – or so they will say in their pre-written campaign mailers. They didn’t need to play the brinkmanship with Republicans on extending the payroll tax – they should have started negotiating earlier, as they did not even need that money to get to their number and there are still dollars on the table sitting in the reserve fund.
The Republicans in Carson City played a different game of spin, one where they had the chutzpah to claim they were better friends of education AND Defenders of the Constitution. Outside of Guinn, Sandoval and a few others, most Republicans through the years have been unwilling to discuss money and were automatons whose programming short-circuited if any word other than “accountability” was spoken.
Sure, the Republicans want to be on their high horses now and are enjoying the union and school district warfare because the Democrats have to wear this. But their history generally is to genuflect to business interests that act as if small increases in a payroll tax (Guinn) and a new Commerce Tax (Sandoval) would destroy them, as they continue to profit from an economy created by and for gaming. The GOP’s so-called principle in not voting a few months ago for an extension of that payroll tax rate is less about their commitment to that document written in 1864 and more to the checks they want to receive in 2020.
The Clark County School District has a credibility problem that is well-earned. There is no question the district and its lobbyists moved the goal posts during the session, frustrating the governor and lawmakers alike. But their failure to communicate aside, they did inform Sisolak and his team – as well as lawmakers – about the need for more money, including the professional development funds now at the center of the dispute.
Jara, as an outsider unlike some superintendents, came in with an air of superiority and a sense of shock at just how antediluvian the state’s approach to education really was. He didn’t handle some of the optics very well – firing deans by video, buying the fancy exercise bike. But he should not wear all of this, especially because the school board Mensans gave him the money in his contract to buy the Peloton, and his supposedly connected lobbying team was responsible for keeping him apprised from afar.
Jara has made himself an easy villain for Sisolak to demonize, but the local union is far from heroic. Vellardita is being rewarded for his thuggery – as one legislator told me every negotiation started with him “pointing a gun at our heads”, thinking he can catch more legislators with threats than honey. Many teachers surely appreciate him being smashmouth in his approach, but Vellardita has misled teachers as to what is in their contract (it only had the professional development allowances last year), although they should read it themselves if they are going to complain now.
The union was supposed to be hand-in-glove with the school district to lobby in Carson City, and I recall no one making an issue of these professional development funds during the session. Instead, the CCEA was fighting with the state teachers union, which has been ineffectual for many years, creating confusion for lawmakers, teachers and parents.
Let’s not forget this nettlesome fact, either: A strike is illegal under Nevada law. Teachers who are making this a brave act of lawbreaking akin to what Mahatma Gandhi or the Chinese citizens in Tiananmen Square did are doing themselves no favors.
And by not condemning the strike threat when they excoriated Jara on Friday, the governor and lawmakers tacitly condone breaking the law. As Orrin Johnson pointed out Sunday in these pages, there is a reason public employees are not allowed to strike.
Desperate times may call for desperate measures – but a lawsuit over funding adequacy is much preferable to a strike. Sisolak and the Democrats surely are worried about the political damage, too, although it is the governor’s job to intercede and to try to force a resolution. But by siding with the union, which supported the governor but caused endless problems for him during the session with its Pearl Harbor tactics and constant threats, Sisolak and the others are taking sides in a fight where neither one deserves an endorsement.
The most important question will remain after they scale this molehill made to look like a mountain: How do you improve a system that continues to set thousands of children up to fail?
“Everything is on the table except for one thing and that’s doing nothing and the status quo, because it’s not working,” Sisolak said when he was running for governor. It’s only one session into his tenure, but not much more than nothing has been accomplished, except an infusion of money with the same old legislative legerdemain.
They also didn’t even introduce a new funding formula to replace one that is a half-century old until shortly before the end of the session, then turned it essentially into a study and approved it. If that isn’t a microcosm for the short shrift given to education funding in Nevada, I don’t know what is.
The table Sisolak referred to remains bare, and if everything is supposed to be on it come 2021, that should include the gaming tax, the Commerce Tax, a sales tax on services, property taxes and – close your eyes – a graduated income tax. Debate it all.
And whether you are an elected official or major donor or business person or parent or teacher or….anyone, the time has come. The fault, my dear Nevadans, is not in the district or the union or even Carson City; the fault is in ourselves – all of us – that we have not made education a cornerstone of what this state is all about instead of a battle over small budget numbers and pathetic partisan positioning biennium after biennium.
Strike or no strike, deal or no deal, the real problem won’t go away and what the state needs most isn’t more money: It’s leadership.
Jon Ralston is the founder and editor of The Nevada Independent. He has been covering politics for more than 30 years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.