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Democratic Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson at the Legislature on Feb. 6, 2017. Photo by David Calvert.

Monday marks the start of Teacher Appreciation Week in Las Vegas, and dozens of businesses around Southern Nevada are offering freebies and discounts to say thank you to the thousands of educators in the area.

But Democratic Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson wants to give them something a bit less tangible — more certainty about what changes the Legislature might make to education when it reconvenes in 2019. It comes on the heels of a series of teacher strikes in other states, the appointment of a new Clark County School District superintendent, vastly different visions for education in Nevada from gubernatorial candidates and a bitter schism between the state teachers’ union and its largest local affiliate.

“Education has been in the news a lot, and I think teachers, in particular, leading up to teacher appreciation … deserve to know where the state’s leaders are planning on taking them,” Frierson, who’s expected to retain top post in the Assembly next year, told The Nevada Independent last week on the IndyMatters podcast.

Like many before him, the speaker said Nevada needs to address the fact that its schools rank at or near the bottom in the country, but acknowledges that some of the calls for action have been lip service.

“We have talked about needing to do something for a long time without putting any detail or any teeth in it,” he said. “And so, I have been working, along with my colleagues in the Assembly, to make sure that we come up with some ideas that actually make some changes.”

Frierson laid out a plan that he said he’s discussed with Assembly Democrats — who are all but guaranteed to hold control of the lower house. Below are his thoughts on pressing education issues facing the state.

Education Savings Accounts

A fierce Republican-led fight to fund Education Savings Accounts floundered at the end of the 2017 legislative session, although Democrats held a hearing on an ESA bill and its passage seemed a possibility for a short time. Frierson said he’s doubtful ESA funding will succeed in 2019.

“I think that the advocates for vouchers are going to be the true decision makers about whether or not there’s a conversation,” Frierson said. “We offered compromises. We offered ways that we could discuss a sliding scale, make it need-based. At every single step, it was all or nothing. And that’s just not how you govern.”

He doesn’t foresee there will be enough votes to pass ESA funding in the upcoming session, even if they’re need-based and even though a recent Nevada Independent poll shows a plurality of Nevada voters support the program.

“In my opinion, until we fund public education the way that we should to be able to make a true assessment, we are doing a disservice to the greater masses by taking money away and sending it to private school, and certainly in a way that lacks accountability, lacks any conversation about need,” he said. “This goes completely contrary to the notion of putting money where it’s needed the most.”

He offered a common criticism of ESAs — that even when the state offers families more than $5,000 per child per year for a private school or other educational option, tuition often costs more than that, and private school isn’t an option for those who can’t cover the remainder.

“I think that we can always have a healthy conversation about providing options for our families, but they have to be real options for everyone, not just those that have the means to make up the difference,” he said.

Marijuana money

Unlike Democratic state Sen. Tick Segerblom, Frierson isn’t pushing for a special legislative session to redirect revenue from a 10 percent excise tax on marijuana to schools, rather than to a rainy day reserve account. He said schools still ultimately received the same amount of money Gov. Brian Sandoval budgeted for them to get from marijuana revenue.

“I think the public has been misinformed, because of the way we had to do it, that that didn’t go towards education,” he said. “It did, but I think that it would be a strong policy statement to put that in statute to say that it must.”

Frierson said that marijuana excise tax money went to the general fund rather than the DSA, but lawmakers then shifted the same amount of tax revenue from the general fund into the DSA.

“So, calling us into special session for that purpose — we’ve actually already accomplished that by the end of legislative session,” he said.

Frierson said he’s willing to support a special session if Sandoval calls one, although the governor has already said he thinks doing so would be unnecessary. And Frierson is not whipping up the votes — two-thirds of lawmakers — that would be needed for the Legislature to call itself into a special session. He said he doesn’t think the votes are there.

“I’m not going to engage in rhetoric and gamesmanship for this,” he said. “We’re not having a special session as it stands right now. And, I think that we need to get ready for 2019, and this is, I think, a step in that direction.”

Taxes

Frierson indicated his support for using hotel room taxes approved by voters through Initiative Petition (IP) 1 in 2009 for education as they were intended, rather than to support a variety of state expenditures as they have since the recession. A group called Fund Our Future Nevada is specifically calling on lawmakers to make such a change.

“We had a recession. And so we have started to recover from that, significantly recover from that. And, although it might have to be gradual, it’s time that we start to use that money in the way that the voters intended for it to be used, and that is to supplement the public school fund, the DSA,” he said.

Asked how the state would wean itself off the hotel tax money for purposes other than education, Frierson said the Legislature would have to tighten its belt and perhaps pass a resolution affirming the money’s sole purpose.

“The reality is I think that we have been making allocations out of that money that programs weren’t necessarily entitled to, and we had to make adjustments when we had a recession,” he said. “That’s why I say that this is another one of those things that represents a gradual adjustment.”

He said a resolution that would eventually go back to a vote of the people would clarify that money the hotel tax provides would be on top of other money dedicated to education, rather than backfilling for money that’s been pulled out of schools.

“Quite frankly, the other thing that I think is a growing sentiment amongst my colleagues is we have to be prepared to give up some pork,” he said. “This has been a fund that we have been able to draw from as an institution to give away and to use in other purposes, and we have to be willing, as leaders, to give up the ability to do that, so that we can use it in a way that’s consistent with the will of the voters. I am saying today that we have to start doing it.”

A rainy day fund for public education

Frierson wants to create a reserve account specifically for public education where surpluses are set aside and used later to cushion the blows of shortfalls in school funding. The state already has a general rainy day fund that’s being replenished in part by marijuana excise tax revenue.

“I recall back in 2009, there being an effort and the policy called for any surpluses in the funds set aside for education to go towards education,” he said. “That effort was not successful. And, quite frankly, over the last several years, we have not had a surplus. But, just think, if we would have done this 20 years ago, we would have a healthy, rainy day fund, so that our education system could sustain this past recession.”

He called it a long-term plan that would need to be implemented gradually.

“As my colleague, Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, always says, you can’t put money in your bank account until you feed your kids,” he said. “So, we have bare necessities that we need to provide for. So, we’re not going to just put money away without making sure that our needs are met. But, I think it’s a responsible way to prepare for the future.”

Frierson said the current budget crunches in Washoe and Clark counties might qualify for tapping into such a fund, but he signaled he didn’t totally agree with Clark County trustees who have blamed much of their trouble on the state.

“I think that historically, as a state, we definitely need to do better. I’m not going to pass the buck and say that we have always done right by public education. I don’t think that we have,” he said. “But, I also don’t think that the school district has helped the cause either, and there’ve been issues with numbers that they present, and we find out that they’re not exactly accurate, and they had to redo numbers. I think that we have to continue to look at those numbers, and make sure that they’re being responsible with the resources.”

He noted that CCSD is going through a complicated reorganization process.

“So, I want to be patient with them, but we can’t wait forever,” he said.

Property tax adjustments

Frierson said the Legislature “certainly” needs to look at adjusting the state’s complex property tax formula. Tax levels don’t rise as fast as the economy has rebounded, leaving local governments and schools in a pinch, but acknowledged that framing the discussion as raising taxes is toxic and led to the proposal’s demise last session.

“Hopefully, the thing that’s different right now from last session with respect to that issue is that property tax bill was rolled out as a tax increase,” he said. “And, once you ring that bell, no matter what you amend it to, you can’t take that image off of it. So, I think if we start off with some policies to talk about stability, we might certainly have a better shot at getting some advances.”

He also wants to make the property tax formula — just like the education funding formula — more straightforward.

“Our property tax structure is complicated. We have different amounts for corporate versus residential, different ceilings,” he said. “We need to look at simplifying and making it clear for taxpayers.”

The outcome will also hinge on who becomes governor, and how legislative elections turn out. If a property tax bill is deemed to raise taxes, it requires support from two-thirds of the Legislature to pass.

“Fortunately or unfortunately, there’s going to be a huge difference depending on who’s in the governor’s office,” he said. “So, we’re going to have to be prepared. I’m certainly willing more than anybody I know in that building to work across the aisle and work with whoever I have to work with to get it done.”

Money for teacher raises, bonuses

Frierson wants the Legislature to consider designating more funding within the distributive school account (DSA) for raises for teachers and support staff.

“We built in … what we call a 2 percent rollup, in anticipation of possible raises,” he said. “That’s probably not enough, and we probably need to look at increasing that.”

He also wants to set aside more money for teacher bonuses, not only for teachers headed into high-need positions, but also those who have “stuck it out” in challenging assignments long-term.

“What we’re talking about in anticipation of next week is replenishing the $10 million that was set aside for teacher incentives,” he said. “Last session that was proposed to be cut to $2.5 million. We were able to negotiate to get it back up to $5 million, but it was only for new teachers and transferring in teachers. I think we need to replenish that back up to $10 million.”

Weighted funding

Frierson didn’t commit to fully implementing a weighted school funding formula, in which schools are designated extra money for each student with special needs — whether they have a disability, come from a low-income family or are learning English.

“We recognized in an ideal world the weighted funding formula fully funded would be great, and it would probably yield some great results,” he said. “But, we have to make some baby steps to make some progress, and I think assess that progress and the effectiveness of it. And then, come back to look at whether or not we can provide more funding.”

Fully funding the “weights” and overhauling how Nevada funds education would cost an estimated $1.2 billion. Instead, the state has allocated $72 million over the biennium to provide $1,200 more for each student who receives free or reduced-priced lunch or is an English learner who falls in the bottom quartile of performance and isn’t already supported by Zoom School or Victory School programs.

“I think we would like to certainly build on that, and focus more on putting money where kids need it the most because that’s where we get the best bang for our buck,” he said.

Fiscal discipline

Frierson said the state needs to be ready to take on additional health-care costs if the federal government stops funding certain programs.

“With all of the national conversations about health care, in particular, we’re looking at having to absorb significant cuts if we’re not ready,” he said. “And so, we are going to have to look at nickel and dime, and some of those amounts, but have to assess our overall state’s needs and come up with a way to meet those needs, and I think that it’s just going to take some self-reflection, and some difficult decisions, so that we can prioritize what our state’s needs are. Nobody wants to cut any of these things … and we’re going to have to be responsible.”

Although some — notably Republican gubernatorial frontrunner Adam Laxalt — have said they’d like to repeal the new Commerce Tax on large businesses and said the state could make it up through marijuana revenue, economic growth and government efficiency, Frierson said he doubted things like economic growth can be counted on to support all of Nevada’s growing needs or backfill IP1 money that’s pulled from general fund expenditures.

“Well, I certainly hope that there’s going to be enough economic growth. That would be a dream world. I don’t necessarily anticipate that being the case, so we have some tough decisions to make,” he said. “And, even if we raise the tax on recreational marijuana by a couple of percent which I think would still keep us in a competitive number with other states like Oregon and Washington and Colorado, that’s still less than $100 million.”

He said ideas for keeping Nevada competitive while maintaining services could come from the Southern Nevada Forum — a group of lawmakers, business leaders and stakeholders who develop legislative priorities ahead of the session.

“We have to provide for those services,” he said. “I worked in criminal law for over a decade, and I know when we don’t, that’s where you have an uptick in criminal activity … the people that don’t have an education and job opportunities are frequently also the people that ultimately end up engaging in criminal activity, and we pay for it one way or another.”

Raising teacher morale

Frierson said it’s important that the teaching profession is valued. Part of his motivation to roll out his education plan, he said, is to “reiterate to teachers that we do value them, we do get it, we do understand, and we are continuing to talk about options, so that we can make sure they have the tools.”

“When my grandparents moved here some 45 years ago, my grandmother was a substitute teacher, and teaching was a hobby that spouses did when the other spouse was doing their main job,” he said. “So, I think that we have to look at it as a career … the last thing that we want here are teachers that are looking at what other states are doing and strikes, and taking that drastic step because they don’t feel valued.”

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