Nevada lawsuit seeks more tax money for education, though more money has not improved education

On Monday the Nevada Supreme Court heard arguments in a lawsuit brought by nine parents claiming the state Legislature is not meeting its constitutional requirement to adequately fund K-12 public education, according to the morning paper and the online Nevada Independent.

The 37-page lawsuit was filed in March of 2020, as reported here, but dismissed in October by a Carson City district court judge who said “the Court will not substitute its judgment for that of the legislature with respect to the education policy in the state of Nevada.”

The suit, filed by Educate Nevada Now, says Nevada students “inhabit one of the lowest-rated and worst-performing state school systems in the United States,” and asks the courts to find that the level of funding of public education in the state has fallen short of the constitutional requirement to “ensure a basic, uniform, and sufficient education for the schoolchildren of this state.”

There are two problems the Nevada high court justices must grapple with in deciding this case. One: As the suit itself notes, the Nevada constitution states that the Legislature shall appropriate education funds that “the Legislature deems sufficient …” That would seem to dictate that lawmakers are to determine what is “sufficient” rather than the courts. Two: Past spending increases on public education have produced no discernible improvement in the quality of education. From a 2014 Cato Institute analysis of state by state education spending versus SAT scores.

The Nevada Supreme Court in the case of Guinn v. Legislature in 2003 held that Nevada students have a basic right to a public education under the state constitution, the current suit states. In that case the court decided education funding had to take precedent over a constitutional amendment requiring a two-thirds majority to raise taxes.

Justice Bill Maupin was the only dissenting vote in the case, citing separation of powers, “Again, we are powerless to order co-equal branches of government to exercise individual acts of constitutional discretion. Our authority depends upon whether extraordinary relief is warranted and in exercising our authority to grant relief, we would be restricted to an interpretation of the Constitution, utilizing recognized tenets of statutory construction.”

The current lawsuit neglects to point out that the justices three years later overturned Guinn v. Legislature, largely for the very reason cited by Maupin.

The Educate Nevada Now suit further quotes the state constitution, which says, “The legislature shall provide for a uniform system of common schools, by which a school shall be established and maintained in each school district […].” A school? The quote is cut off before the part that says such schools, however many there are in each district, must be open “at least six months in every year …”

The litigation comes despite the fact Nevada lawmakers in 2015 passed the largest tax hike in history, $1.5 billion, largely to fund education, and lawmakers have since approved 3 percent raises for teachers.

The problem with Nevada public education is not so much a lack of funding as it is a deficiency in accountability.

At one time Nevada high school students were required to pass a proficiency exam in order to graduate. That was dropped in 2018.

With the 2015 tax hike came a requirement that third graders who could not read at a certain proficiency level would be held back to repeat the third grade. That has since been dropped.

At one point 50 percent of teacher evaluations were based on pupil achievement growth. That has been cut to 15 percent.

Another problem is that education evaluations are all over the board. According to Teacher-Certification.com, Nevada now ranks 39th in K-12 education funding and neighboring Utah dead last. According to Education Week, Nevada ranks 18th in quality of education and Utah ranks 10th. According to U.S. News & World Report, Nevada ranks 48th in quality of K-12 education and Utah ranks 21st.

But the bottom line is: The constitution seems clear when it says education funding is whatever “the Legislature deems sufficient …”
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