By Kenny Belknap
This week, the Nevada Legislature will continue to meet to try and bridge an estimated 1.2 billion dollar budget shortfall driven by the fallout from the corona-virus pandemic. For us Nevadans, this feels like a bad dream that has been repeated over and over — and from which our lawmakers seem unable to learn. It was just over ten years ago that the Legislature faced an almost 900 million dollar budget shortfall because of the housing crisis and financial downturn of 2009. To see it playing out again is unnerving. To see Gov. Steve Sisolak propose that K-12 education be cut by over 150 million dollars in the upcoming school year is devastating.
These cuts are being proposed alongside the plan for blended learning in Clark County. The plan calls for us to be split into three cohorts of either fully online or a combination of online and in person classes. It will cost $90 million more than what is currently budgeted in order to pay for things including Chromebooks, online learning professional development and personal protective equipment. Without more funding, nevermind having money cut from the budget, there is no foreseeable way to safely and effectively educate our students for the coming year.
As a public school teacher in Nevada, I’ve had to consistently learn to do more with less. Nevada is at the bottom of the nation in per-pupil spending annually while Clark County has some of the largest class sizes in the nation. Even though we haven’t been given the funding we need, we still saw growth in our achievement as a state, rising to 35th in the nation in 2019. While Nevada’s teachers and students have been making strides in the right direction, this latest round of budget cuts is sure to pull the rug out from under Nevada’s children.
I fear that these possible cuts will not only undo all of the great work Nevada educators have accomplished but also make it impossible for us to have a working model to teach our students in the midst of a global pandemic. Our educators and students deserve better than to see their progress swept away by budget cuts while setting us all up to either become sick this year or not have a meaningful academic school year.
Our governor and Legislature should look to our neighbors to the east in Utah to see what leaders who really support education do. Utah was able to balance its budget while also increasing funding for education, something I think is very possible for leaders in Nevada to accomplish. Gov. Sisolak has already ruled out the option of any new tax streams to help bridge this gap, so lawmakers need to take on and modify existing ones starting with property taxes and followed by mining.
If the leadership of this state can’t find the courage to raise taxes to save our schools, they should not be the ones taking on the task of creating a plan to reopen our schools. They cannot expect to be able to pull the rug out from under our local school districts and at the same time give them the impossible task of finding a safe and effective way to completely reimagine the way schools work. This is a job that requires level-headed leadership and money to make it happen, both of which can only be provided by the state.
If the state moves forward with the proposed cuts to education, it will send a loud and clear message to all of Nevada’s students and teachers that their education and health are of lesser importance than the looming reelection campaign. Instead, I challenge our state leaders to show the kind of leadership Nevada’s teachers have been showing with their students and families during the months of the pandemic. Our leaders should focus on investing in education and shoring up our tax code so this painful cycle of boom and bust can finally end. They should focus on the task of reopening our schools safely and purposefully while still dealing with coronavirus ravaging our state.
Any plan that shifts our traditional school year to virtual or a blended learning will cost more, so the conversation in Carson City should be focused on shoring up revenue streams and not finding every last dollar to cut. That is real leadership that students, teachers and families in our state have the right to expect.
Kenny Belknap teaches AP and Honors U.S. government at Del Sol Academy for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas. He is a Teach Plus Nevada Senior Policy Fellow.