Superintendent of Education Dale Erquiaga says the proposed K-12 education budget is just the first step in a multi-year process that’s going to completely reform how education is funded in Nevada.
“The current Nevada Plan was designed to provide equity among the districts,” he said. “Not among different students.”
The Nevada Plan dates to the 1967 Legislature and, ironically, was proposed by northern and rural lawmakers tired of seeing their money shifted south to fund rapidly growing Clark County. It uses a formula that includes adjustments for local wealth to set a per-pupil amount for each county school district.
That may have worked when Nevada was 90 percent or more white and stay-at-home moms were common. Erquiaga said it doesn’t work now when 55 percent statewide and 60 percent of Clark County students are eligible for free or reduced lunch and the state is just 36 percent white.
Key programs in the plan are aimed at poor and minority students, especially Hispanics who make up 40 percent of students statewide.
“Hispanic, black and American Indian students do not graduate at anywhere near the rate of white students,” Erquiaga said.
The goal is to focus funding and attention on those areas that are responsible for the state’s low graduation and lower student performance rates.
He said the plan proposed this coming budget cycle begins the process of shifting to a weighted per-student formula that takes into account the added expense of teaching English Language Learners, special education students and those with behavior problems. It will also attempt to identify and fix problems dragging down scores among general population students.
If successful, it will eventually integrate all those categorical programs, those aimed at specific groups, into the overall funding scheme.
He said the shift to weighted student enrollment will begin with special education because that money is still provided in “units” — the same way as in the 1960s.
“The problem is we no longer teach special education that way,” Erquiaga said.
Those students are now taught in mainstream classrooms but estimates are it still costs about double the amount to educate a special-ed student, something the existing formula can’t take into account.
The plan is to study exactly what it takes to educate those students so the “weight” and therefore the cost of educating them can be accurately determined.
That, he said, will enable the state to tear down the wall that separates special education funding and integrate it into the main Distributive School Account (DSA). That “weight” and its funding will follow the student all the way through grade 12.
Going forward, the needs of all the different school populations now funded through a dozen or more “categorical” accounts including class size reduction, full day kindergarten and English Language Learners will be studied, weighted and integrated into the overall funding.
“I believe it will take three biennia to complete the work,” Erquiaga said. “At the end of that, we will know more about what it takes to educate a student.”
He said throughout that process, the effectiveness of each program will be measured.
“The goal this biennium is to gather the information so that we don’t make the same mistake we did with class size reduction,” Erquiaga said. “Everyone likes that program but there’s no way to measure it.”
That deliberate approach is the key difference between Sandoval’s proposal and what a group of Assembly Republicans have proposed — simply lifting spending restrictions from all the categorical pots of money, lumping them into one account and letting the school districts decide how much to spend where.
“Our commitment is to study it so we spend the money correctly,” Erquiaga said.
He said the approach is based on the Zoom Schools program approved by the 2013 Legislature.
That program pumped extra money into elementary, additional pre-K classes, smaller class sizes and a longer school year.
“Zoom schools laid out, here’s the money and here’s what you’re going to buy with it and here’s the people you can serve with it,” Erquiaga said.
Zoom has reportedly had significant success in improving performance by those students because it’s aimed directly at the problems.
Key to making the plan work, he said, is collecting and analyzing data about each program. Erquiaga said Nevada’s Department of Education never got any added staff to do what state law has required for more than 20 years: study and evaluate the class size reduction program.
“Part of our failure is directly the result of having a department too weak to have any impact on what the districts do,” he said.
Sandoval’s proposed budget attempts to fix that by adding 24 positions to the roughly 130 in the department. Those people, he said, will hold districts responsible, collecting the information on how different programs are doing and analyzing it so the governor can make good decisions.
If some programs aren’t working, he said, “the governor will not fund them the next year.”
The proposed budget increases total K-12 funding for the coming biennium by about $780 million to just under $3.5 billion. About $430 million of the increase is in catagoricals.