With an economy based largely on casinos and construction, the old Nevada had less need of an educated population than most other states. A worker with a high school degree could make good money building homes, serving drinks, or parking cars, at least while they still were young and healthy. Many students who wanted a good college education left the state, and the state could afford to be a tax haven for shell corporations, millionaires and retirees.
As Gov. Brian Sandoval’s recent State of the State speech reminds us, that old Nevada is disappearing. Today on many measures we do not look like an attractive state for people who want a good education for their children. While we might wish we could ignore this, the Governor and many other elected leaders have said it cannot go unanswered. We are at the threshold of a new Nevada and that Nevada requires a high-skilled, well-educated workforce to build its future.
Sandoval called for increased state revenues to help educate our residents, and recommended a significant increase in state support for K-12. For higher education, the governor recommends enough of an increase in state support to cover inflation, population growth, and the end of mandatory state employee furloughs. How badly does our education system need this funding?
Nevada’s high school graduation rate is the lowest of any state in the nation. Average ACT and SAT scores generally place us at No. 40 or worse, as do proficiency levels on fourth-and -eighth grade reading and math tests. Starting salaries for teachers in Nevada are only slightly below the national average, but our spending per pupil puts us near No. 45 because of a high pupil-per-teacher ratio.
In higher education, our universities are recovering from severe cuts in state support and beginning to hire again, but only because students now bear more of the cost. We are 49th in the share of residents who enter college, and 44th in the share with a college education. That latter statistic is better than some other states in the Deep South or Appalachia, but only because some of the people who have moved here have degrees. While we have one of the highest community college retention rates, we are ranked 49th in the share of our population who goes to a community college. And so it goes.
The opportunity for public education is part of the social contract that maintains our democracy, but it’s a challenge to do it well. When the prior generation has less education, this tends to affect the next generation. Parents who never valued education have more difficulty convincing their children otherwise, and even if they have learned the error of their ways they have a tougher time helping their kids succeed. Meanwhile, we have a relatively large immigrant population and a significant number of transient residents, which makes it so much more difficult for teachers. Indeed, more than half of our students now qualify for a free or reduced lunch. A new Nevada must also cultivate a culture that supports and strives for a good education system.
You can’t solve problems as deep as we have simply by throwing money at them, but neither can you solve the problems without money. Reforms have been resisted in the past because they were seen as smokescreens for new ways to disguise pay cuts and increased class loads. Hostility to public education led many teachers to feel defensive and disrespected, as critics used the examples of a tiny minority to paint the rest with a broad brush.
With new money on the table, it may be easier to bargain for reforms. We should begin not only by setting up a committee of business leaders, as the Governor has done, we should begin by also asking teachers. Many have good ideas for how to improve the system, and many know where the waste is and which teachers have burnt out. Listening to our teachers and offering them real help is a good place to start when constructing reforms.
Some of the Governor’s proposed reforms have merit, and some raise questions that have yet to be answered. Full-day kindergarten has been authorized for a decade but not fully funded before, and most studies conclude it can get students off to a better start. Appointing school boards could improve the expertise of school board members and reduce the number of board members who see it as just a springboard for higher office, if done correctly. The creation of smaller school districts may have the potential to create more attentive management, but it’s also likely to increase administrative costs per pupil and has led in many places to richer areas having better-funded schools while the poorer areas spiral downwards. Most critical perhaps is changing the formula to one who considers the needs of our different student populations.
The Governor’s proposal to add money to the table is a recognition if we want to improve our education system we need to adequately fund it. Still, his proposal is likely to receive stiff opposition from some quarters who long for the old Nevada. Perhaps, they might consider the stories of Horatio Alger, in which every child who went from rags to riches combined hard work with opportunity. An adequately funded education system still requires our children to work hard, and the path to school can still be uphill both ways, but in order for chlidren to be successful they must have the opportunity only a good education provides. The governor’s proposal is a start. If it passes the Legislature, our funding for public education will still be significantly below the national average, though perhaps no longer at the bottom.
If we use it well we can improve the quality of our state education and prepare the workforce our new Nevada needs.
Kate Marshall recently completed two terms as Nevada State Treasurer. Elliott Parker is professor of economics at the University of Nevada, Reno.