Did the Nevada Supreme Court decision in Lopez v. Schwartz stop the ESA voucher program?
Yes, the court order permanently enjoined the voucher program due to its unconstitutional funding structure. However, the program may still be constitutional if the Legislature were to fund it without using public school dollars. But, changing the funding mechanism would likely change the “universal” nature of the program, since the program could not rely on the diversion of public school per-pupil dollars. Instead, the program would likely be financed from a finite pool of funds, therefore capping the number of applicants who are eligible. The Legislature would need to consider serious policy questions about who would be eligible for the vouchers, and whether a voucher program is the right way to spend limited public dollars.
Won’t recent education reforms solve the problem?
The Nevada Legislature and State Board of Education have enacted several very important education reforms in recent years. The State Board adopted curriculum standards, known as “Common Core,” to prescribe what all Nevada students must know and learn in school. These standards are more rigorous in Language Arts and Math, reflecting the demand to prepare students for career and college.
The State Board has also adopted new tests to assess students under new Common Core standards. Every child will take tougher exams to determine if they are college-ready. These new tests will be implemented this year.
The Legislature has approved a new system to evaluate the performance of teachers and principals, and improve their effectiveness. This system is in the first year of implementation.
The Legislature has directed that class size be reduced in kindergarten through grade 4. And the Legislature put a pay-for-performance compensation system in place for teachers and principals. It is unfunded and does not address the basic problem that our most talented teachers choose not to serve in our neediest schools.
These are just some of the reforms recently adopted by lawmakers and State education officials. They are positive steps, some long overdue, many of which are just getting underway.
The Legislature and State Board have set high expectations for our students, teachers, schools and districts. But something fundamental is missing. They have not reformed the antiquated Nevada Plan for school funding so that we provide schools the resources essential to provide all students the opportunity to meet and achieve these new academic standards. And even if the funding formula were changed today, the consequences of decades of failures as a result of the formula will continue to be felt for decades to come.
An old adage says “you can’t make bricks without straw.” Nevada’s broken, outmoded and inadequate funding system means that our students and teachers are asked to meet higher goals, but without the resources to make sure they get there. No wonder our teachers, students and parents are frustrated. Academic standards and tests alone – without the resources necessary to achieve them – will not improve outcomes for our students.
What’s wrong with Nevada public schools?
Governor Brian Sandoval made clear in his 2015 State of the State address that Nevada’s public schools are not meeting the needs of our students. The Governor identified Nevada’s failure to reform how we fund public education as a main reason why students are not succeeding in school. Our school funding formula – the Nevada Plan – was adopted in 1967 when Nevada was predominately rural and sparsely populated. Today, Nevada is more populous, diverse, and urban, with a vibrant, global economy.
Our student population has also dramatically increased and changed. Today, Nevada public schools educate an increasingly vulnerable student population – especially in Clark County, where 70% of Nevada students reside. Over half of Nevada children meet federal poverty guidelines to receive assistance to eat breakfast and lunch at school. Nearly half of the students in Clark County are Latino, and of the Latinos in K-3, more than half speak English as a second language.
As Governor Sandoval recognized, too many of our public schools do not have the resources essential to give all students the opportunity to succeed. Take, for example, teachers. The most important resource for a quality education is a well-trained teacher who can deliver effective instruction for each student, at each level, and work with parents to support and enhance their child’s learning. Yet, Nevada consistently fails to attract and retain effective teachers. In the past year, the Clark County School District opened the school year with more than 1,000 teaching position vacancies. This severe deficit, which mostly impacts the District’s neediest schools, is projected to continue for the next decade. Teachers in Nevada are leaving the profession, on average, after five years. Our most talented do not teach our most at-risk children.
Adequate funding would allow Nevada school districts to recruit the best teachers. Adequate funding allows principals to add personnel to ensure every child is reading at grade level in every classroom. Adequate funding allows for a longer school day and year to help the most vulnerable students catch up. Adequate funding allows schools to boost salaries to teachers in demanding environments, those who work with our most challenging students. Adequate funding will ensure every child attends school in a building that is not overcrowded, unsafe and unsuitable to deliver a 21st Century education.
Study after study has shown that the 50-year-old Nevada Plan provides school funding that is woefully inadequate. The Nevada Plan shortchanges every Nevada child, from the gifted and talented to those who come from less affluent families. The Nevada Plan is ranked as the most unfair in the nation because students most in need receive <em>less</em> funding than the average student.
It should come as no surprise that Nevada is at the bottom on education outcomes. Nevada has one of the highest dropout rates and worst graduation rates in the nation. Nevada ranks near the bottom in performance on standardized assessments and has one of the worst rates of achieving a diploma and earning a postsecondary degree. Nevada’s English language learners graduation rate of 28% is among the worst in the nation. Nevada has earned a D in preparing young children for school.
There is broad consensus that Nevada must do better when it comes to providing the teachers, programs and other resources essential to give all students the opportunity for success in school. There is broad consensus that we must improve education to prepare students for participation in our economy and civic life. Our State’s future is at stake. The time to act is now.
What is ENN?
ENN is a campaign to advocate for a new school funding formula that meets the needs of today’s Nevada. ENN is non-partisan and welcomes the participation of education groups, teachers, community organizations, parents and students from across the State. ENN will advocate for school funding reform with our political leaders and create a climate of public pressure and support for necessary change.
What is “adequate” school funding?
“Adequate” funding simply means funding that is sufficient to make available in every school those resources essential to give all students a meaningful opportunity to meet the outcomes that the State has set. Adequate funding for schools is so important that the Nevada State Constitution requires the Legislature to provide “adequate” or “suitable” support for public education.
According to the Nevada Constitution, the State must provide adequate education funding. The Legislature is also required to ensure that funding is used effectively and efficiently in schools. The Nevada Department of Education plays a key role in ensuring that the State’s education dollars are used productively and as intended by the Legislature.
What does the Nevada Constitution require?
Nevada Constitution Article 11, Sections 1, 2 and 6 state:
“The legislature shall encourage by all suitable means the promotion of intellectual, literary, scientific, mining, mechanical, agricultural, and moral improvements.”
“The legislature shall provide for a uniform system of common schools, by which a school shall be established and maintained in each school district at least six months in every year.”
“In addition to other means provided for the support and maintenance of said university and common schools, the legislature shall provide for their support and maintenance by direct legislative appropriation from the general fund.”
“The Legislature shall enact one or more appropriations to provide the money the Legislature deems to be sufficient, when combined with the local money reasonably available for this purpose, to fund the operation of the public schools in the State for kindergarten through grade 12.”
The Nevada Supreme Court has not had a chance to interpret these provisions and what they mean in terms of school finance. The Nevada Supreme Court has observed “[o]ur Constitution’s framers strongly believed that each child should have the opportunity to receive a basic education.”
What are the components of the ENN campaign?
The campaign includes many facets:
The campaign will engage grassroots organizers, stakeholders, politicians, and others in the community through a coordinated communications effort. This effort is aimed at disseminating information about Nevada’s education system. Those interested will be encouraged to get involved with ENN, and help contribute to the pressure for systemic change.
ENN will also utilize the involvement of expert consultants and community researchers to identify and collect data in several areas that are critical to illustrating the astounding resource deficits and their effect on student outcomes. This research will include an analysis of the essential resources needed to help students achieve, how the current funding system affects at-risk, ELL, and special needs students, and a thorough analysis on the need for quality pre-K in Nevada.
In addition to getting the word out, the campaign aims to actively involve other organizations by developing and implementing a statewide coalition interested in access to educational opportunities. The campaign will utilize these relationships to conduct forums, town halls, and other outreach events to hear and incorporate the voices of the community in the ENN’s efforts.
How long will the ENN campaign last?
The length of the campaign will vary based on many factors. First and foremost, how the Legislature responds to public pressure and advocacy will dictate the approach of the campaign.
How can I get involved?
Become informed and engaged in the need for school funding reform. Join the campaign. Ask your friends, neighbors, parents, and fellow students join the campaign. If you are involved in a community organization, parent teacher association, or education organization, ENN needs your active participation.
You can also make a tax-deductible contribution to support our efforts.
Doesn’t Governor Sandoval’s proposed budget address the resource issue?
In January 2015, Governor Sandoval put forward a budget with a significant increase of $389 million for education. This proposal showed significant political courage and moves the State in the right direction. However, it does not put Nevada per pupil spending on par with pre-recession levels. Governor Sandoval’s proposed increase amounts to $500 more per child.
The Governor’s bold proposal is a down payment on the State’s obligation to provide every Nevada child with an adequate education.
Nevada will have to increase per pupil funding by at least $3,500 per student to adequately fund education, according to an update of the Legislature’s commissioned cost study published in January 2015.
Governor Sandoval’s budget proposal for the 2015 finally funds full-day Kindergarten for every Nevada child. His budget addresses pieces of the resource challenges that Nevada faces. For example, the Governor’s proposal provides for full-day pre-K for 4,000 students. If his proposal is implemented, roughly 80% of Nevada children will still not enjoy access to pre-K. Governor Sandoval proposes to double investments in ELL schools. This increase would only fill about one-third of the need for the most impacted elementary schools in urban settings and would represent only a first step in providing ELL children in middle school and high school with resources to help them graduate. He proposes that the Legislature begin to invest in resources for poor children in rural and urban districts through the “Victory Schools” program, filling about 5% of the overall need of our less affluent population.
These are down payments that will put Nevada on the right track to meet its constitutional obligations to Nevada children. However, hundreds of thousands of children will still be without the resources and services that they need to succeed.
Are Nevada schools underfunded?
Nevada schools are grossly underfunded, and have been for decades. This underfunding deprives our schools of the resources that they need and is a major reason for low student outcomes. The neediest students, with the least resources at home, suffer the most because the Legislature has failed to modernize education finance. The Nevada Plan must be scrapped and a new formula put in place. Governor Brian Sandoval and legislative leaders acknowledge that Nevada’s school funding formula is outdated and inadequate, and must be changed. And even if the funding formula were changed today, the consequences of decades of failures as a result of the formula will continue to be felt for decades to come.
Will voucher schools be held to the same standards as public schools?
Public schools, including charter schools, must meet a range of State education standards and performance goals, as well as fiscal accountability measures designed to ensure effective and efficient use of all public school funds. The voucher law does not require private and religious schools, online schooling or other private services paid through vouchers to comply with the same standards and accountability measures. The voucher law expressly exempts private schools and entities paid through vouchers from meeting the rigorous education content, assessment, teacher effectiveness and other requirements imposed by the Legislature to ensure uniformity and quality in the public schools. For example, students in voucher-funded private schools and homeschooled students are not required to take the same exams or follow the same standards as public school students. Teachers do not have to be certified, and parents have no protection from underperforming or non-performing private schools and entities.
The voucher law also does not protect children from discrimination based on race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity or expression. Private schools, entities and providers accepting voucher funds are exempt from adhering to these basic protections, despite receiving public funds. Private schools, in practice, can select or remove students as they choose. Private schools are not obligated to meet the special learning needs of any students and are free to discipline and expel students as they see fit, with no legal recourse for families.
Will vouchers increase student segregation and isolation?
Private schools that accept vouchers are not open to all, unlike public schools. Private and religious schools are not required to accept every student. They may refuse to educate children based on language ability, low-economic status, academic ability, disability, or other factors. If charter schools are any indication, private schools accepting vouchers will serve disproportionally fewer students with disabilities, students in poverty and students learning English than public schools in the same communities.
Because the voucher amounts do not cover the full cost of most private or religious schools, only those families that can afford the remaining costs of full tuition, fees, books, uniforms, and transportation will benefit. As more affluent families qualify for vouchers and take their children out of the public schools, those schools will experience an increase in the concentration of students who are poor, immigrant, homeless and with disabilities. In this way, vouchers will foster more isolation and segregation of public school students by race, socio-economic status, disability, language and other special needs factors. Research convincingly shows that student isolation and segregation contribute to inadequate educational resources, opportunities and outcomes.
Will vouchers reduce the teachers, programs and other resources in public schools?
Nevada substantially underfunds its public schools by an estimated $1.5 billion. Studies commissioned by the Legislature document the underfunding of public education, especially for students who are poor, academically at-risk, or in need of English language instruction and special education services.
By triggering an outflow of funding, Nevada’s voucher program will reduce the availability of qualified teachers and support staff, increase class sizes, and make it even more difficult to address the state’s chronic teacher shortage. Funding will also be reduced for English language instruction, gifted and talented programs, and support for at-risk students, drop-out prevention, and special education for students with disabilities. Nevada already has among the lowest student academic performance of any state. Vouchers will only make it more difficult to give all students the opportunity for school success that they deserve and that Nevada so urgently needs.
Who will benefit most from Nevada’s vouchers?
Nevada’s voucher program does not impose any household or family income limit on who can qualify for a voucher. Wealthy families – even millionaires – can qualify, as long as their children satisfy the 100-day public school enrollment requirement. Children of struggling families, who cannot afford to pay the full cost of private school tuition above the voucher amount, will not take part in the program.
Many Nevada public schools are in inner city areas, and only a handful of private schools are located in these neighborhoods. There are just a few private schools in Clark County where a $5,100 or $5,700 voucher covers the full tuition in a private school. Almost all of Nevada’s private schools where tuition rates match voucher amounts have a required religious curriculum. It is clear that more affluent and wealthy families, who can already afford to send their children to private schools, will benefit the most by having vouchers subsidize or underwrite the cost of more expensive private and religious schooling.
At public hearings recently held by the State Treasurer, the most vocal supporters of vouchers have been parents of private school children. Virtually every parent who spoke at these hearings made clear their children already attend private and religious schools or are being homeschooled. Their main complaint is that, in order to qualify for a voucher, they will be “forced” to enroll their children in public school for 100 days. These parents urged the Treasurer to allow online courses to satisfy the 100-day enrollment requirement.
What will be the impact of Nevada’s new voucher program on public school budgets?
The Legislature had not commissioned any studies about the impact of the voucher program on public school budgets when it enacted the voucher law. The ESA law does not allocate new state monies for vouchers; instead, it requires the State Treasurer to transfer funding from public school budgets for each child that leaves the public school and qualifies for a voucher. Proponents of the law argue that the public schools will not suffer from the transfer of funding to private entities because the schools will have fewer children to educate.
This reasoning is seriously flawed:
Nevada’s current level of public school funding is not based on what it actually costs to educate a child to meet State standards. Nevada continues to use an archaic funding formula – the Nevada Plan, developed in the 1960s, – when the state was predominantly rural and highly homogeneous. The Legislature itself has found that the Nevada Plan is woefully inadequate because it does not reflect the current educational needs of Nevada’s significant population of low-income, minority, immigrant, gifted, and special education children. The Nevada Plan formula is largely based on historical expenditures and is weighted in favor of the kinds of expenditures made by rural schools districts. No allowance is made for the additional costs of educating poor, immigrant, gifted or special education students. According to a February 2015 update of a 2006 education cost study commissioned by the Legislature, Nevada underfunds its public schools by over $1 billion per year.
Also, while enrollment declines will reduce some costs, other fixed costs – including professional development, maintaining buildings and buses, offering rigorous curriculum to meet “college ready by graduation” goals, etc. – must be provided and will continue to require sufficient funding.
Vouchers will make public school budgets unstable and unpredictable. Public school budgets must now be adjusted on a quarterly basis, and, under the voucher program, children also may enroll and qualify for voucher payments quarterly. Public schools may see an influx of children who enroll in order to meet the 100-day requirement, but, within less than a year, those students will leave the school, reducing funding in the next quarter.
With few restrictions on usage, vouchers will drain ever-increasing amounts of funding from public school budgets. Twenty thousand children currently attend private and religious schools, and an unknown number of children are homeschooled. These children may enroll in public schools to meet the 100-day requirement, or they could qualify simply by taking two or three courses offered by a charter school through long distance learning.
If 20,000 children qualify for vouchers, Nevada public school budgets will be reduced by at least $100 million annually. As more schools and educational services are offered in the new “private market” opened up by vouchers, even more funding will be diverted from the public schools. The voucher law has no limit on the number of children who could qualify or on the amount of education funding that can be taken from the public schools. Over time and very quickly, the voucher program will cause a substantial loss of funds necessary to operate Nevada’s already underfunded public schools.
In sum, ESAs will introduce instability and a loss of critical funds into an already underfunded public school system. Budgeting will no longer be for the entire school year, but instead will become a chaotic, quarter-to-quarter process, distracting administrators, principals and teacher from the most important business at hand: making sure all students are academically successful.