Newspaper column: Why education spending should be cut

Teachers are walking out of classrooms in Colorado and Arizona, demanding higher salaries and more education funding. Lawmakers are rushing to meet their demands.

Here in Nevada all the candidates for governor are kowtowing to the demand for more education funding.

Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt has declared, “We must continue to move forward, not backward, in the areas where we’ve made great strides. In particular, Nevada policymakers have implemented a series of programs designed to address a critical area — improving early literacy. I’ll continue to champion these promising new programs. I pledge that under my leadership, these programs and our entire public education system will be properly funded — we will never go backwards from our current levels of education spending. I repeat: I will not scale back public education funding.”

His Republican opponent Treasurer Dan Schwartz has said he wants to find a way to wrest the $750 million in tax money earmarked for a Raiders football stadium and redirect it to fund education.

Democratic candidates and currently Clark County Commissioners Steve Sisolak and Chris Giunchigliani have both called for more education spending.

“Every child in Nevada deserves the opportunity to succeed and that starts with strong public schools,” Sisolak states on his campaign website. “Steve supports investing in Nevada schools so they have the resources to provide a safe and effective learning environment for all of our kids. He believes that in order to strengthen our schools we need to raise teacher salaries and lower classroom sizes.”

On her website Giunchigliani declares, “Every Nevada child deserves an opportunity to get a quality public education, regardless of their zip code, parents’ salary or ethnicity. As a public school special education teacher for 30 years, I know the difference a quality public education can make in a child’s life. But too many of our kids are in underperforming schools and we’ve failed to bring urgency to this issue. One of my top priorities as governor will be to fix the school funding formula. We need to increase educators’ salaries and reduce class sizes.”

Recently Clark County School Board members held a press conference calling on the governor to call a special session of the Legislature in order to raise taxes to increase education spending. Board member Carolyn Edwards was quoted by the press as saying, “We need to be able to pay our teachers and our employees the raises they deserve.”

Juxtapose that quote against the fact that in January Education Week magazine’s annual “Quality Counts” survey of state-by-state K-12 education ranked Nevada 51st among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Only 31 percent of Nevada fourth graders are proficient in math and reading. The raises they deserve?

Pardon us for allowing a heretic to sound a sour note in the choir, but George Mason University economics professor Bryan Caplan has just published a book that — gasp! — says education funding should be cut, because the vast majority of it is wasted. The book is called “The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money.”

Caplan estimates that our government agencies alone spend $1.1 trillion in tax money a year on education. That is $3,600 for every person in the country, not every student, every person. He estimates that half of the money doesn’t buy our students any enhanced skills, but merely something he calls “signaling.”

Caplan contends that a high school or college diploma does not mean someone has learned much of anything worthwhile — other than rudimentary literacy and numeracy — but instead signals to potential employers that one is capable of spending long hours doing stultifying menial tasks and conforming to expectations.

To buoy his claims about the inadequacy of the American education system, Caplan cites the General Social Survey of adults that asked 12 elementary true-false science questions. Only 60 percent could answer correctly, when 50 percent should be possible by merely guessing.

“Accounting for guessing, the public’s scientific illiteracy is astonishing,” Caplan writes. “Barely half of American adults known the Earth goes around the sun. Only 32% know atoms are bigger than electrons. Just 14% know that antibiotics don’t kill viruses. Knowledge of evolution barely exceeds zero; respondents would have done better flipping a coin.”

Perhaps there are better things on which we could spend a half a trillion dollars a year.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.


County commissioners flunk math and approve windmill project east of Searchlight

Las Vegas was built on the premise that people are just too darned lazy to do the math and figure out that in the long run The House always, always wins.

And apparently that’s also the kind of people we elect to represent us on the Clark County Commission.

On Wednesday morning the commission unanimously agreed to extend for two years permits for Duke Energy to erect 87 wind turbines — each as tall as the Palms hotel at 425 feet — on 19,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management controlled land east of Searchlight. (Speaking of math, I’m still trying to figure out how the original 300-megawatt project with 165 windmills can be cut to 87 windmills that produce 230 megawatts.) It seems that after all these years the BLM has still not issued an environmental impact statement, according to company spokesman Dick Bryan, the former senator and governor.

Joshua tree along Oregon Trails Road north of Searchlight.

Of course, neither has the company yet signed a buyer for any electricity it might someday produce, nor has Congress extended the production tax credit of 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour that makes such projects financially viable.

Despite the fact wind energy costs three times as much as fossil fuel-generated power and requires tax subsidies and tax breaks to pencil out, the majority of commissioners fawned over the prospect of a handful of construction jobs — 300 to 400, according to Bryan — and ignored the fact that draining money from the private sector via higher power bills and taxes kills jobs — on average two to four for every one created. And those construction jobs might last for a year or so, while permanent jobs might amount to a couple dozen.

Though the Searchlight town board has twice voted to reject the windmill project, the commissioners — including Steve Sisolak, whose district includes Searchlight — backed it unanimously, sounding like Neanderthals mouthing: “Green energy good.”  So, don’t try to confuse them with facts or math. Their eyes glaze over.

The commissioners were more concerned with the potential for a substation to be located near a road where people might actually glimpse a string of concertina wire atop a chain link fence than with 87 windmills with 161-foot blades spinning in the wind, when the wind blows.

“I just don’t want barbed wire …” Sisolak said after Bryan assured the commission the substation walls would be block walls or something that fits into the environment. Wouldn’t want any ugly barbed wire blocking the scenery. No, sir.

“The jobs and the renewable energy portion of this are very, very important to me,” Sisolak continued. “The jobs are local for Nevada residents. I want to reiterate that. … We all are very aware of getting three or four hundred local people back to work” — and utterly unaware or unconcerned about the jobs that will be squandered.

Under questioning by Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, Bryan admitted the company has not found a buyer for its juice but has had some conversations with NV Energy, the local electric utility. Giunchigliani expressed hope that NV Energy would purchase the wind power, apparently without regard for what such a purchase would do to the power bills of her constituents. NV Energy has said it plans to buy only 250 megawatt-hours of renewable power in 2014 and 2015, and Duke will not be the only firm competing for those contracts — more than two dozen other projects are on the drawing board on BLM land in Southern Nevada alone.

Sisolak chimed in and said he has talked to NV Energy about buying more renewable energy even though he was told that would not be cost effective since the company has already met its legislated mandate for purchasing more expensive “green” energy.

Four people spoke out against the project at the commission meeting. At meetings in Searchlight dozens have opposed the wind farm.

“This is not an eco friendly project,” Searchlight resident Judy Bundorf testified as the commissioners deliberated — though it was less deliberation than pontification and pandering. “Pardon me to offer one more bit of math. When they say it’s a 200-megawatt project, that’s if the wind is blowing between 15 and 40 miles per hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Typical output from commercial wind farms ranges from 20 and 30 percent of the nameplate rating. In England during the last cold spell two years ago, they were getting 5 percent or less. …

“This is my first time at the rodeo, because I’ve never been involved in having my property value threatened at this extent.”

Earlier Bundorf compared the Searchlight project to the Sloan gravel pit project. Sen. Harry Reid, who has a home in Searchlight, fought the 640-acre gravel pit and managed to shut it down. Bundorf offered that she would rather have a hole in the ground than 87 huge windmills. She estimated the windmills, with 24-hour blinking strobe lights for aviation safety, will be visible from 20 miles away.

Lynn Davis of the National Parks Conservation Association pointed out that the project will sit astride two national recreation areas, Lake Mead National Recreational Area and Mojave National Preserve.

Donna Andress, who has lived in the area since 1927, suggested 100-year-old Joshua trees could be destroyed by the project.

Local real estate broker and kayak guide Ellen Ross also did some math and estimated the BLM land lease costs renewable energy companies about $118 per acre. “I’d like a deal like that,” she said. “By building these projects you are degradating not only the community, but tourism and land values, which mean you have less real estates taxes, less income in your municipality. You have less people. You are destroying the potential that Las Vegas was built for.”

Ross noted such scenery exists nowhere else in the world. She said the project is subsidizing industrialization in the pristine desert at the expense of a small community.

It’s simple math, but our commissioners can’t or won’t do the math.

Here is what one small area near a home near Searchlight looks like now:


This is a simulation of the same scene with windmills, but it does not show the roads and power lines that will be necessary as well:


(Photos courtesy of Basin and Range Watch)