(Jim Clark) – There are a couple of old adages that sum up our politicians machinations in the legislature this year. The first is Robert Burns’ “The best laid plans of mice and men go oft awry.”
In his State of the State message Governor Sandoval laid out a plan to bring Nevada education into the 21st century. He promised all-day kindergarten, retaining students who couldn’t read by 3rd grade, higher funding for English Language learners/special education students, money for construction, repair & maintenance of schools, more charter schools, and an “Achievement” school district in which all underperforming schools are assigned to a single superintendent and gradually converted to charter schools. He promised accountability and collective bargaining reform.
The Governor had a budget to accomplish this and it involved a one billion dollar tax increase to be accomplished in part by continuing taxes scheduled to “sunset” plus imposing a graduated business license fee. Republican loyalists saluted and said, “yes sir;” Republican traditionalists said: “no way we vote for a tax increase”; Democrats said: “more money for education? Count us in.” Sandoval needed a 2/3 majority vote to increase taxes so he had some tall persuading to do.
That leads to the second adage, Mark Twain’s “those that respect law and love sausage should watch neither being made”. Examples: (1) GOP legislators introduced a bill to prolong the school debt portion of our real estate taxes thus raising $4 billion for school buildings. That was accompanied by a shelving of a union wage mandate which made labor costs 45% higher for school buildings. Republicans hated the former and Democrats hated the latter but most held their noses and voted for it. (2) The “read by third grade” bill passed together with a $27 million funding authorization for literacy programs to help retained students, spending that begins immediately. However, the program’s effective date was postponed until the 2019 school year.
The “sausage” analogy really came into play at the end of the session. The governor needed a 2/3 vote to increase taxes; that gave Democrats and GOP traditionalists some leverage. Democrats threatened to withhold their support unless the union wage requirement for school construction was restored. Traditional Republicans held out for perhaps the most stunning school choice measure in the nation, educational savings accounts (ESA’s) . . . a plan that allows parents to take state funding allotted to their child and use it for any educational purpose, including private school, tutoring and distance learning. In the end Governor Sandoval got his tax increase, Democrats got union wages restored and Republicans got ESA’s.
Who was the big winner? In my opinion K-12 students of Nevada and their parents. Vouchers, another form of ESA, have been around for 20 years and are in use in Wisconsin, Florida, Washington DC, and other jurisdictions. In nearly every case, according to the Wall Street Journal, independent studies have confirmed that student achievement has improved. Even students who do not avail themselves of vouchers or ESA’s have improved their academics because, according to the studies, the effect has been to cause public schools to be more competitive.
Until last month similar school choice plans were restricted to minority, impoverished and special education students. Nevada’s law makes ESA’s available to just about every student irrespective of financial ability to afford private or parochial school.
Are our schools fixed? There is more to be done. Collective bargaining reform got blocked by the Democrats and without that we can never have true accountability. No progress was made on eliminating the bottom 5% of teachers and replacing them with highly paid teaching experts who can truly turn Nevada K-12 education around. A corollary need is elimination of artificial barriers such as credentialing that keep talented experts out of classrooms.
ESA’s have tremendous potential but much of the remainder of the governor’s education plan “went oft awry.”
Jim Clark is President of Republican Advocates. He has served on the Washoe County and Nevada GOP Central Committees. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.