Parent group files lawsuit against state over public education funding
The decades-long fight to dramatically boost Nevada’s K-12 education funding has been waged in school boardrooms and legislative chambers, with incremental increases notched along the way, but now that adequacy battle is headed to the courtroom.
A parent coalition filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the State of Nevada in a bid to unlock more money and end a status quo-mentality they say has inhibited student progress for generations. The complaint — filed in the First Judicial District Court in Carson City — argues the state has failed to meet its constitutional obligation to provide sufficient resources for public schools, harming children in the process.
The lawsuit names the Nevada Department of Education, State Superintendent Jhone Ebert and the Nevada State Board of Education as defendants. Educate Nevada Now, an equity-focused advocacy group, is supporting the litigation as co-counsel along with the Wolf, Rifkin, Shapiro, Schulman & Rabkin law firm.
“It is by now clear that the political branches of Nevada government are unable to remedy the deep constitutional infirmities of the statewide public education system, and so this lawsuit, if unfortunate, has become necessary,” according to a draft of the complaint obtained by The Nevada Independent.
The litigation marks a new chapter in the quest to improve achievement for Nevada’s 500,860 students, including 70,000 who are learning English as a second language and nearly two-thirds who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Another 63,000 students receive special-education services, while about 10,000 students are enrolled in gifted and talented education (GATE) programs.
For years, Nevada has been dogged by lackluster student performance via subpar graduation rates, low ACT scores and abysmal math and reading proficiency rates. More than half of all students who took the state standardized test for math were not proficient. By eighth grade, only 30 percent of students overall achieved proficiency on the math test, and students in certain subgroups — English language learners, special education and low-come — fared even worse.
Students perform slightly better on the reading standardized test, but even then, only 46 percent of third-graders are proficient. The lawsuit walks through the domino-effect that can occur when students aren’t performing on grade level and, thus, aren’t prepared for life beyond graduation, including college.
“No state can long perform at this woeful educational level and expect its citizens to sit idly by,” according to the lawsuit. “From achievement scores to class sizes, from teacher quality to on-the-ground resources for student learning, the State has failed its schoolchildren.”
Most of the defendants named in the lawsuit did not immediately return a request for comment Wednesday morning. A spokesperson for the Nevada Department of Education, however, said State Superintendent Jhone Ebert was aware of the lawsuit but had not received a copy yet.
Felicia Ortiz, a Nevada State Board of Education member who’s running for re-election, said she was not surprised by the lawsuit and called it “way overdue.” But she questioned the logic in naming the education department and state board as defendants given their inability to control revenue in the way that the governor or Legislature can.
“We don’t have any authority over funding,” she said. “The state board and the Department of Education can’t make the pie bigger. Believe me, if we could, we would have already done it.”
Nevada hasn’t completely ignored education funding in recent years, though. Former Gov. Brian Sandoval shepherded a $1.1 billion tax package through a Republican-controlled Legislature in 2015 and approved more than two dozen education programs. By the time the legislative session ended that year, state lawmakers had funneled $252 million more toward K-12 public education.
Then, Gov. Steve Sisolak ran a campaign tied to building on those education investments and, once and for all, righting Nevada’s stumbling education system. In a symbolic gesture, Sisolak has even forgone the governor’s salary until he deems that mission accomplished.
During his first legislative session as governor, in 2019, lawmakers added $62.2 million toward K-12 education funding. They also passed a bill to modernize Nevada’s 1967-era school funding formula.
But the new Pupil-Centered Funding Plan didn’t come with extra money to fund so-called “weights” for special-education students or those children learning English as a second language, living in low-income households or enrolled in GATE programs. Education advocates blasted the new funding formula bill as essentially useless without an infusion of cash.
The lawsuit echoes their point, describing the new funding formula as something that “will only redistribute the existing funding sources and will spread thin dollars that currently serve only a fraction of low income and ELL students.”
It also argues the state has rejected multiple studies that recommended Nevada increase its per-pupil spending. Nevada’s average, basic per-pupil support guarantee is $6,218 for the current academic year — about $3,000 less than recommended in a state-commissioned study conducted by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates.
The lawsuit isn’t entirely unexpected. Education advocates have threatened such action as a last resort for years.
Amanda Morgan, legal director of Educate Nevada Now, said a broad-based group of parents, students, teachers and community members attempted to effect change during the 2019 Legislature but walked away unsatisfied with the session’s results.
“We got a new funding formula, but that failed to address the fundamental issue with our last funding formula,” she said, referring to adequate funding. “We were overwhelmingly disappointed.”
Still, Morgan said the lawsuit doesn’t have a funding price tag.
The plaintiffs — nine parents who have children enrolled in the Washoe County, Clark County and White Pine County school districts — ask the court to find that Nevada isn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to provide a sufficient education, thus forcing a financial reckoning.
The lawsuit comes 11 months out from the 2021 legislative session, where education is once again expected to be a headliner issue. The Clark County Education Association already has filed two initiative petitions targeting the gaming tax and sales tax as mechanisms for increasing overall education funding.
The governor and Democratic legislative leaders have so far shied away from taking a position on the union-led effort. The education funding lawsuit, even if still wending its way through the judicial system, will apply more pressure.
“Realistically and pragmatically, I’m sure it will impact the session because now you have a lawsuit pending that’s really challenging the way they do things with public education,” Morgan said.
Nevada is one of three states that up until now has not sought court action related to education funding, Morgan said. Unlike some other states, where litigation has been more narrowly focused on various equity issues, this lawsuit is a general adequacy case.
“This is about everyone getting the resources,” she said.
And, in the same vein, the lawsuit calls for a group effort to solve the problem.
“Solutions to the lack of educational resources, so long leaving students short of announced goals and life opportunities, will require massive, sustained community efforts, and will require the input and energies of legislators, members of the executive branch, school administrators, teachers and staff, citizens far and wide, and jurists,” the complaint states. “The task is indeed daunting, but the need is too great to continue any longer without forcing the legal issues this lawsuit raises to the fore.”
Ortiz, the state board member, said she’s hopeful the lawsuit sheds more visibility on the state’s education funding woes, garnering community support along the way.
“I think it’s another avenue that we have to at least try,” she said. “Lobbying doesn’t seem to help so much.”
The Holland & Hart law firm is assisting with the case, too. Morgan said both firms are doing so on a pro bono basis.
This story was updated at 9:23 a.m. to include attempts to get reaction from defendants and again at 10:35 a.m. to include comments from Felicia Ortiz.
It was updated again at noon after the lawsuit was filed. The story was updated at 4:40 p.m. to reflect that a ninth parent has been added to the lawsuit as a plaintiff.