Cheers, then jeers: Why the proposed K-12 education funding bill created questions and confusion

What are the fruits of Nevada lawmakers’ efforts to fund K-12 education this year?

Well, that’s difficult to say because they don’t want to talk about fruit at all. They say the two funding formulas — the old Nevada Plan and the new Pupil-Centered Funding Plan — do not lend themselves to an apples-to-apples comparison.

Last week, state lawmakers patted themselves on the back for adding roughly $500 million to the education budget. Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas), who warned there would be naysayers and skeptics, declared that she had “been waiting a damn long time to put this amount of money into education.”

The celebratory dust had barely settled before questions began emerging. When the large K-12 education funding bill (SB458) dropped earlier this week, education observers noticed a peculiar aspect in the very first section: The total public support for the upcoming biennium will be an estimated $10,204 per pupil the first fiscal year, followed by $10,290 per pupil the next fiscal year. Both figures are lower than the total public support appropriated in the current biennium — $10,227 per pupil for Fiscal Year 2019-2020 and $10,319 for Fiscal Year 2020-2021.

The apparent decrease muddied the water for several days with few clues clarifying the situation. But, late Thursday afternoon, Sen. Mo Denis (D-Las Vegas) said he had received information from the Legislative Counsel Bureau pointing to ending-fund balances as the culprit. In 2019, under the Nevada Plan, school district and charter schools’ ending-fund balances were calculated into the per-pupil estimate for total public support, Denis said. Moving forward with the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan, ending-fund balances are not calculated into total public support.

It’s a calculation deviation with a large price tag attached to it: For the current biennium, ending-fund balances totaling $283.5 million were included in total public support each year, Denis said. 

So despite similar language describing total public support in SB458 and SB555, the K-12 funding bill passed during the 2019 session, the two aren’t mirror images of each other. It’s unclear what the combined ending-fund balances would have totaled this year, but it likely would have been enough to significantly prop up the per-pupil estimates for total public support.

“This is the highest amount we've ever put in for schools,” Denis said.

Still, portions of the additional $500 million were used to backfill pandemic-related education budget cuts, making it more restoration-oriented than a pure funding infusion. Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) couched it as progress during a tough time. 

“The Strip was dark,” he said, referring to the pandemic shutdown of the state’s primary economic engine. “It’s impossible to suggest that we’re not going to have to make some difficult decisions. I think that, quite frankly, it is incredible that we came even close to pre-pandemic spending. And so it’s a good signal moving forward.”

The shift to the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan has also caused meteoric change to many categorical funding programs — such as Class Size Reduction, Read by Grade 3 and Zoom and Victory schools — which are being swept into the larger education funding pot and then redistributed to students. Therein lies another difficulty measuring the 2019 Legislature’s education appropriations with those happening right now in Carson City.

In theory, it will be easier to track moving forward — after this first biennium of fully transitioning from the old funding model to the new one. Then it will be time to cue the appropriate fruit comparisons, or at least that’s how lawmakers envision the process playing out. 

As it stands now, Carlton said comparisons between the upcoming biennium and previous one are “like grapes to watermelon.”

State Superintendent Jhone Ebert pointed to the Commission on School Funding as proof of the complexity of moving away from one finance model and implementing a new one. The advisory body met 22 times during the interim and issued a series of recommendations for how to transition. Still, there’s no crosswalk, so to speak, between the two models.

“It’s natural to ask for a crosswalk — how do you get from where you’re at and to where you're going?” she said. “The fact of the matter is, that’s not how this was developed.”

But the mere perception of a funding dip has rankled education advocates. The Nevada State Education Association, which has routinely questioned moving to the new funding formula without a significant bump in revenue, has openly critiqued the proposed K-12 budget on social media and in legislative hearings.

NSEA has raised concerns about the so-called weights — extra money intended to support certain student groups — established in SB458. The weights — 0.24 for English learners, 0.03 for at-risk students and 0.12 for gifted and talented students — will serve as a multiplier to the statewide base per-pupil funding. The result appears to be approximately an extra $1,648 for English learners, $209 for at-risk students and $837 for gifted and talented students.

NSEA leaders called the at-risk weight “anemic” and incapable of covering the expense of services meant to support low-income students.

Educate Nevada Now, an equity-focused organization, issued a statement Thursday lamenting the lack of financial clarity surrounding SB458 when it was unanimously passed in a joint subcommittee last week.

“We are glad that lawmakers could restore those funds, especially after such trying economic challenges, but we need to be clear about what these dollars mean and manage people’s expectations,” Amanda Morgan, ENN’s executive director, wrote in a statement. “This does help put us near where we were in 2019, but it does not mean students will see smaller class sizes or that schools will see more resources or supports.”

The ending-fund balance rationale posed by Denis didn’t dissipate skepticism among NSEA and Educate Nevada Now officials who want lawmakers to produce documents showing the money transactions.

“This whole thing doesn’t engender a lot of confidence in the new formula,” said Chris Daly, an NSEA lobbyist.

Lawmakers, however, argue that schools will see more resources courtesy of the massive wave of federal coronavirus relief funds. The three rounds of federal funding stand to bring Nevada school districts roughly $1.5 billion. The Clark County School District alone expects to receive more than $777 million through the American Rescue Plan Act, which is the third round of federal funding.

School districts are developing plans for how to use the federal funds, especially in terms of mitigating academic challenges created by the pandemic. The caveat, of course, is that the federal windfall is not recurring. The funds must be used within specific timeframes.

“I would count on the educational experience being better for our children,” Ebert said, referring to the effect of the federal funding.

But Michelle Booth, communications director for Educate Nevada Now, cautioned against an overreliance on the pandemic-related federal funding.

“Federal funds are great,” she said. “They’re helpful, but everybody knows that unless we do anything different, unless we have revenue, we’re going to have a fiscal cliff after that.”

Another unknown with five days remaining in the legislative session is whether lawmakers will pass any measures boosting mining taxes. If that were to occur, Denis said that money could be directed into the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan. 

Frierson on Wednesday expressed optimism there would be movement on the mining front but didn’t divulge details. Republicans, who will be key to getting a deal through, said they haven't seen concrete language on what a compromise tax deal with mining would look like and can't commit until they do, but have heard it’s in the ballpark of $70 to $80 million a year.

"I expect for there to be a policy passed dealing with revenue from mining, whether it's a resolution on the ballot or a deal,” Frierson told The Nevada Independent. “I expect to do something."

This story was updated at 8:33 p.m. on May 27, 2021, to include additional comments from Nevada State Education Association and Educate Nevada Now officials.