How to Make Our Schools More Effective and Affordable

By Assemblyman Chris Edwards, District 19

In his State of the State Address to the Legislature this past January, Governor Sandoval announced an aggressive array of targeted education reforms to improve Nevada’s failed public education system.  Since then, legislators have been assessing the effectiveness of these proposed program and their associated costs.  The challenge is to find an affordable mix of effective programs that will move Nevada’s education system out of last place.

This is the time in the legislative session where the serious budget and funding discussions take place.  I’m one of the new legislators who has been working on budgets for the past few months.  Over the course of these past few months, I have identified $1.5 billion in savings and cost avoidance.

Governor Sandoval deserves credit for facing Nevada’s education crisis with a multi-pronged effort to address the different obstacles to our children’s success.  I commend him for incorporating multiple programs to attack the various problems and not simply using a cookie-cutter-approach to all of them.

Several of the Governor’s recommended programs are clear winners.  The Gifted and Talented, Career and Technical Education, College and Career Readiness Grants, Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG), and Advanced Placement have demonstrated real progress and opportunities for students across the state.  These deserve continued and expanded support.

Others of the Governor’s recommended programs, such as Read By Grade Three and Zoom Schools are newer programs that offer a high probability of benefitting students.  The Achievement School District and Harbor Master initiatives offer excellent opportunities to rescue students in failing/failed schools.

Some programs have merit but the start-up costs or expansion pace need adjustment.  The “legislative jury” is still out, though, on how much financial support these should receive.

One thing is certain: there are multiple ways to fund these programs and I propose the following options.

The state government could fund all the Governor’s programs or fund them as matching-block-grants to the various school districts.  History has demonstrated that simply giving school districts money does not work.  School districts have a history of not honoring legislative goals and spending money recklessly.

A 2014 Legislative Counsel Bureau Audit Agency audit revealed a lack of accountability for $381 million supposedly spent on class-size reduction.  This scathing report exposed a lack of planning, management and oversight of these funds.  This is totally unacceptable.  By modifying and/or re-phasing some of the recommended programs, AND requiring school districts to share the financial burden, the state government could save as much as $250 million.

Class size reduction is a very popular program.  It is also very misunderstood.

The school districts reported hiring 1,850 teachers.  But, where did they teach?  Hiring teachers isn’t the same as having a separate classroom to teach students.  The school districts didn’t have 1,850 empty classrooms or portables waiting for teachers. It appears that students were not put into smaller classes, but rather additional teachers were added to existing classrooms.  That’s not how people expected this program to operate.

If we are to continue class-size-reduction, I propose a much more cost effective way to fund it.  Many people are unaware that Nevada has been using long-term substitute teachers in place of full-time teachers.  These substitute teachers earn less than full-time teachers and don’t get benefits.  If we employ the substitutes teachers as class-size-reduction teachers in co-teaching situations (they are the second teacher to an existing classroom), the state could save almost $300 million.

Governor Sandoval wants to make full-day kindergarten available throughout the state.  This is a noble goal.  But, given Clark County School District’s recent revelation that they are unable to hire the necessary teachers, the lack of teachers and classrooms stands in the way.

One remedy is to phase in full-day kindergarten over four or six years rather than trying to force its implementation in two.  This would achieve the goal in a more workable manner while saving another $42 million.

Another effort to consider is re-hiring retired teachers without reducing their retirement pay or benefits a single penny.  If they were paid 150% of the current substitute teacher rate, this could be a very good deal for the teachers, students, schools and taxpayers while helping to solve the teacher shortage.  For every 1,000 retired teachers re-hired in this manner, the state could save about $50 million.

One of the greatest cost-saving measures is the one that usually gets a knee-jerk “no-way” response.  This response is a huge mistake that unnecessarily adds hundreds of millions of dollars each year in spending, and taxes.

Using the DSA’s Workbook Formula, LCB’s financial staff determined we could save more than $650 Million this biennium.  That money could be used to buy more textbooks, classroom supplies, computers, “shop” classes, and a whole lot of other valuable academic, sports, arts and other programs.

What is this “miracle” program? Classroom-right-sizing.

We could maintain our current student-teacher ratio goal (which we fail to achieve) or we could adopt a more achievable (and reasonable) goal of just a couple more students per classroom.

Research on the effects of class-size reduction on student achievement is mixed.  However, one thing is for certain:  I, and tens of millions of other Americans, learned how to read, write, do arithmetic and all other subjects in classrooms that had more than 25 or even 30 students.  In fact, there are tens of thousands of students across the state learning their lessons better in classrooms that have more than 21 or 23 students in them.

I know that this is probably a bridge too far right now.  But we need to realize that results of not doing this.  While we are spending on programs of questionable effectiveness, students are denied basic needs, teachers are denied proper classroom resources, parents see their children fail or drop out, businesses do not find needed employees and taxpayers are forced to pay an extra $650 million in taxes every biennium to pay for this failure.

These are some of the opportunities to save significant sums of tax dollars.  There are more.  For now, ask yourself this simple question:  Isn’t $1.5 BILLION in savings worth trying these proposals?

What could we do with the $1.5 billion we save?  How about these ideas to help individuals, families and businesses:

1) Significantly reduce the MBT rates
2) Reduce the Business License Fees to $100 for all
3) Restore the Home-Business Exemption for small home businesses
4) Rebate 50% of the annual car registration fee
5) Restore state employees’ longevity pay, end furloughs and give them a real pay raise
6) Add $100 million to meaningful infrastructure projects
7) Add $100 million to Medicaid reimbursement rates (and get ~$300 million federal matching funds)
8) Provide a gravely-needed $40 million to mental healthcare
9) Provide funding to help military veterans in need
10) Continue to fund various educational programs recommended by the Governor

Or we could continue to pay more taxes and watch them be thrown away in inefficient and ineffective ways.

I know, it sounds too good to be true.  But I believe it can be done.

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