Education first: It’s technically the law here in Nevada. Legislators must approve the K-12 public education budget before deciding anything else in the overall final budget. Does that actually have an effect on how much funding goes into classrooms? And what kind of challenges lie ahead in deciding the budget for higher education?
Below, we speak with two legislators with experience in public education and major say in how these budgets come together.

Even though voters passed Question 1 to “fund education first” in 2006, Nevada’s public schools and higher education system still experienced painful budget cuts during “the recession sessions” of 2009 and 2011.

It wasn’t until 2015 when Governor Brian Sandoval (R) and the Nevada Legislature agreed to historic revenue raising tax reform to better fund education at all levels.

So all is now well? Not so fast. I spoke with Olivia Diaz (D-North Las Vegas), one of the new additions to the Assembly Ways and Means Committee. As a teacher, she’s particularly attuned to education issues.

Photo by Andrew Davey

I asked Diaz about one of the most controversial bills to pass last session: SB 302, the ESA voucher program. Diaz explained how the state truly can’t afford vouchers. “We are not anywhere we need to be. We’re not funding Pre-K programs. Libraries are being cut because schools are so strapped and constrained.”

“I take my obligation very seriously to ensure we provide the best public schools in this state.” – Assembly Member Olivia Diaz

Diaz described the difficult situation public schools face today, even since 2015. One of the remaining outstanding issues is  “The Nevada Plan”, or the funding formula that hasn’t been significantly revised in 50 years. During testimony at the Senate Education Committee last week, experts across the board agreed that the state probably needs an additional $1 billion to properly fix the funding formula to address inequities that hit diverse Clark County schools the hardest without creating new shortfalls by defunding rural schools and/or removing the targeted education programs created in the last four years. With “so many needs that have not been met”, Diaz asked how the state could fathom diverting money to ESA voucher subsidies for private schools that are designed to serve wealthier students.
During my conversation with Senate Finance Committee Chair Joyce Woodhouse (D-Henderson) last month, she explained how the 2015 tax deal “was not a cure-all for all our budget needs”. We met again this week to catch up on all things budget. While she appreciates Governor Sandoval’s desire to enhance the overall higher education budget, she does have concerns over how he wants to do it.

“Student fees were recently raised. That was troubling. I don’t think there’s any appetite for [further increases].” – Senator Joyce Woodhouse

Photo by Andrew Davey

So does Assembly Member Diaz. “The last thing I want is students not choosing college because it’s cost prohibitive.” In describing a recent conversation with a former student who’s now figuring out how to pay for college, Diaz stated her desire to make tuition “more student-friendly”.
Another potential point of contention is faculty merit pay. “I do not believe there’s any conclusion on merit pay,” Senator Woodhouse said regarding the Nevada Faculty Alliance’s concerns about Governor Sandoval not including merit pay in his proposed budget. Cost of living and performance based increases for faculty were suspended during the recession years, but only one year of merit pay was provided in Fiscal Year 2015.
Ultimately, Woodhouse and Diaz expressed hope that the Governor and the Legislature can agree to fund programs to expand educational opportunities at all levels. Diaz is working on bills to extend the Zoom Schools program, expand pre-Kindergarten (Pre-K) access, and expand access to Silver State Opportunity Grants.

“Leave no Nevadan behind. Make sure they’re on the path to progress. Make sure that jobs continue to come here, and that every Nevadan succeeds.” – Assembly Member Olivia Diaz

So how will the Legislature ultimately fund all of this? Pre-K expansion alone will cost another $353 million. Fixing the K-12 funding formula costs another $1 billion. None of this comes cheap. During Friday media availability, Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Spring Valley) and Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford (D-Spring Valley) declined to endorse additional taxes or specific investments (that will necessitate tax revenue beyond what Governor Sandoval has already signaled).
Senator Ford hinted at the work ahead in reaching the fiscal “end game” with Sandoval. “There are programs that require resources. Will they be funded? That remains to be seen.” One thing he was very specific about was his appetite (or lack thereof) for Senator Scott Hammond’s SB 359 to revive the ESA voucher program.

“We don’t want public money going to private schools. We need to focus on public school education.” – Senator Aaron Ford

While Ford took a hard line against Hammond’s proposal, he stated Democratic leaders will “take a look” at whatever Governor Sandoval himself offers and “determine thereafter” what to do with it. That right there indicates the many long days and long nights ahead, as the Governor and the Legislature “study for the final exam” coming in early June. The education budget must be decided first, but the final “end game” has yet to be determined.