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This briefing was prepared by Nevada Action for School Options following the 2019 session of the Nevada Legislature.  This version is designed for general audiences: we have different versions applicable to private, public charter, and traditional district-operated public schools.

The focus of these briefings is to provide the information school leaders specifically need to plan on as a result of changes made to Nevada education laws during the 2019 session.  If you would like to arrange a briefing with your school’s leadership, board, or PTO/PTA, please let us know at info [at] NevadaAction.org and we would be happy to come out and speak with your group.

Legislative Brief General Aug 2019

 

The latest installment of Education Week’s annual “Quality Counts” report had a good story to tell about Nevada schools. And we can sure use it – the first month of school has been one tough news cycle after another for Nevada education generally, as news coverage goes.

In one year, according to the weekly education policy publication of record, Nevada’s overall rating’s for rate of growth blew past the annual scores for California and the District of Columbia – big news for Nevadans who fear negative influences coming from their mighty neighbor to the West. Good news indeed.

This new analysis is based on trends through the 2017 administration of the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), the test known as “The Nation’s Report Card.” Nevada’s eighth graders improved their proficiency rates in math by 7.3 percent and their reading proficiency by 7.5 percent between 2003 and 2018, the analysis notes. Put in perspective, this means that at least one in four eighth grade students in Nevada demonstrated scores at grade level in both reading and math – a healthy step below the state average nationally, but progress nonetheless.

Good news is good news, and the hardworking educators making Nevada education happen everyday can always use more of it.

When viewed through the prism of equity of educational opportunity for all children, however, the bright, splashy headlines begin to fade and the picture becomes informative for policymakers seeking directions to build on the improvements.

At the other, lower, end of the student achievement spectrum on NAEP lies the “Below Basic” category of student skills. Students demonstrating below basic skills in reading in math show that they lack “partial mastery of the knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at a given grade.” In reading, for students entering high school, this means that they are unprepared to find information in a document or make connections between simple concepts in two different texts.

Half of all Nevada eighth graders eligible for the National School Lunch Program scored at Below Basic levels in math in 2017. In reading, that number was one in three.

When viewed through a prism of race, this picture also remains discouraging. In Math, one in five white eight grade students scored below basic in math, while two in five of their Hispanic classmates, and three of five black classmates, scored below basic.

In reading, one in three Hispanic eighth graders scored at below basic, while 44 percent of their black classmates did (white students performed about the same as in math).

For eighth grade students below the level of basic skills in reading and math, it matters little whether preparation for college or career is their schools’ stated goal – our system of education has placed them at extreme risk of dropping out without having acquired the skills our education experts believe necessary for them to succeed.

Surely, Nevada’s education and political leaders deserve their moment, courtesy of the Education Week editorial staff, to celebrate their long-in-coming victory over California.

And then it’s time for us to all get back to work, with the goal of providing meaningful educational opportunities for all Nevada learners.

Nevadans, and particularly parents of school-aged children, when asked about the schools in their own neighborhood, are decidedly more positive about schools of choice than about their traditional school-district-operated neighborhood public schools of right.  The same parents are much more likely to feel that the state’s K-12 education is on the wrong track than headed in the right direction.

In a scientific poll across Nevada conducted earlier this year, we asked current parents of school-aged children what letter grade they would give their local schools.

11 percent of respondents gave their local public district school an “A”. 34 percent gave their local traditional district school an “A” or a “B”.

22 percent gave their local public charter school an “A”.  63 percent gave their local charter school an “A” or a “B”.

30 percent gave their local private school an “A”. 73 percent gave their local private school an “A” or a “B”.

These positive grades for schools varied slightly when only Clark County parents of school-aged children were considered:

32 percent gave their local school district school an “A” or a “B”.

48 percent gave their local public charter school an “A” or a “B”.

75 percent gave their local private school an “A” or a “B”.

Interestingly, when the same parents of school-aged children were asked if they think K-12 education in Nevada has gotten off on the wrong track, or is headed in the right direction, 62 percent chose “Wrong Track” and 37 percent chose “Right Direction.”

As Nevadans, together with the state’s education leaders and elected officials, continue to work to improve educational opportunities for all learners, it will be important to remain mindful that when considering their own, local schooling options, schools of choice remain a popular favorite across the Silver State.

For the complete poll findings, along with links to survey data and question scripts, read here.

Public charter schools generally serve their students using fewer financial resources than traditional public schools operated by school districts. A Nevada law, which took effect earlier this summer, will have the effect of broadening this funding gap. Did it do so in conflict with provisions in Nevada’s constitution addressing public education?

SB551, the law passed in the final moments of the 2019 Legislative Session, includes $72 million in appropriated funding to Nevada school districts. The law did not include funding for the more than 42,000 students who attend state-authorized charter schools. For this reason, some have questioned whether the funding provision is in violation of the Uniformity Clause of the Nevada Constitution.

Among its numerous provisions, the new law (section 36.5) appropriated $72 million over two years from the State General Fund to the Account for Programs for Innovation and the Prevention of Remediation, “for the purpose of providing supplemental support to the operation of the school districts.” It delineates specific sums to be paid to each of Nevada’s 17 school districts, in general proportion to size of the student population, “for the purpose of providing supplemental support to the operation of the school districts.”

The section of Nevada’s constitution addressing education includes what is known as its uniformity clause for schools. Article 11, Section 2 of Nevada’s constitution, Uniform System of Common Schools, states, “The legislature shall provide for a uniform system of common schools….”

Nevada is among the states with the least history of court action public school funding systems – an observation from the Education Law Center and others which has garnered increased attention with the public education funding dialogues over the past year.

However, in the 1996 Schwartz v. Lopez case, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that this section of the Nevada Constitution, “is clearly directed at maintaining uniformity within the public school system,” and the funding for schools plays an important part in maintaining this uniformity.

In Nevada, while some public charter schools are operated by two school districts, most are under the supervision of the State Public Charter School Authority. Because SB551 provided funds for school districts but not for schools operated by the Authority, it would seem this may be in violation of the Uniformity Clause, as described in Schwartz v. Lopez.

Other sections of this law are already the focus of a lawsuit led by Senate Republicans over the question of whether its extension of a previously-expiring tax violated the constitutional requirement that tax increases be approved by a two-thirds of legislators.   Should Nevada’s Supreme Court rule in favor of that challenge, it is possible that the outcome could impact the law’s school funding provisions as well.

It also seems possible that if the $72 million funding only for school districts persists without challenge, that a precedent might be established with broader implications for future school funding laws.

Nevada’s 2019 legislative session was a turbulent one for education – what should we make of its outcomes?  More importantly, what are the paths forward for Nevada families seeking the best educational options to meet their children’s needs?  Which policies emerging from Carson City will prove the most impactful, and the most useful, to help educators meet those needs?  Which leave the most work in front of us to get things on track for Nevada’s dynamic education growth?  Where do we expect Nevada’s education, and especially its schools of choice, to go from here?

Don Soifer, Nevada Action president, addresses these and other questions in this 20-minute interview from June 13, 2019 with host Kevin Wall on his Live and Local radio program, airing on 790 Talk in Southern Nevada and the 8 other radio stations across the Nevada Talk Network.