$200 Million, 154k Students, and Vouchers

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By John Vellardita

Faraday is coming. In less than ten years Nevada’s economy is going to need more than half of its workforce to have post-secondary degrees. That is in stark contrast to the 22% in Clark County that currently have a bachelor’s degree. The 2015 Session made significant progress and investments in k-12 education. However, 51% of Nevada business leaders working to improve the economy say we need to do more and continue the progress of 2015.

To continue to make progress, k-12 education needs an additional $200 million to improve student outcomes. Senate Bill 178 calls for the establishment of weights for English Learners, students with disabilities, and students at risk, i.e. low proficiency and eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch (FRL). Its fiscal impact for a four year roll-out is over $1.2 billion; a non-starter in this Session. The only money put on the table thus far is the Governor’s proposed budget of $107 million for k-12.

The Governor’s additional money has $72 million for categorical programs, i.e. Zoom and Victory. However, under the categorical model, there are over 154,000 students in the Clark County School District who would qualify for Zoom and Victory money but do not receive any additional funding because they are not in a Zoom or Victory school. Only 10,000 ELL students receive the additional support and services if they are in a Zoom school. That leaves 32,000 students who qualify for Zoom left behind. There are 122,000 students who qualify for Victory or free and reduced lunch that are also left behind. With the categorical model, the money doesn’t follow the student; it goes to a school.

We are not proposing that we abandon the current Zoom and Victory schools receiving existing funding. We are proposing all new money should begin to transition from categorical models and into weights. The categorical model, when introduced, was the first step in the right direction.  But now, it has created a two class system of education, those in particular schools and zip codes and those left behind.

We are proposing the adoption of a ‘Universal Weight’ that has a flat dollar value (not a multiplier) that is used specifically for English Learners, students in poverty and low proficient students. It is kept separate from the Distributive School Account and it cannot be discretionary on the part of school districts. It would follow each student into their school where the school is mandated to provide a service for those students. The weight must come with accountability measures to ensure student outcomes are achieved.

In Clark County, if we took the Governor’s new money for Zoom and had that money follow the 32,000 ELL students who are not currently in a Zoom school and have that school provide a ‘Zoom’ service to those students left behind, then those additional dollars would amount to $350 per student in the first year of the biennium and $631 in the second year.  That money could be used to pay for services in schools such as after school reading centers, or tutoring programs. However, there’s not enough new money to cover the 122,000 Victory and FRL students left behind to make a difference, hence why we need another $200 million.

In the 2015 Legislative Session, as part of the Governor’s education reforms, AB 394 was passed. This was a bill CCEA supported through implementation. That law mandates that the Clark County School District (CCSD) have in place by the 2017-2018 school year a weighted funding formula where money follows the student into the classroom. There is only one problem. The mandate is unfunded. SB178 gives us the opportunity to address this issue. Republicans need to step up and help complete the job they started and ensure that there is funding to transition to a weighted funding formula. Again, $1.2 billion is a non-starter but $200 million for 154,000 kids is achievable.

SB 359, the education saving account (aka Vouchers) was introduced this week. It calls for $60 million of public money to go to the private sector in the form of vouchers.  How can we have a discussion about putting $60 million into the private sector for vouchers when over 154,000 students in Clark County that are not being equitably and adequately funded? Equally important how anyone can say, Democrat or Republican, that they really support the weights without seriously discussing how to fund them?

AB 394 needs to be funded. Las Vegas schools have to be ready for Faraday. Nevada’s economy will get the biggest bang for its buck if money is invested in our public education system.  We need a public education system that continues to improve with smart investments and high accountability so that we are able to produce an educated workforce for today’s economy. If we do not make smart investments then not only will our kids be left behind, but we will not grow and diversify our economy. Nevadans will be stuck with minimum wage jobs.

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