Newspaper column: Courts can’t tell lawmakers to hike education funding

An education advocacy group has filed suit on behalf of nine parents of Nevada public school children demanding that the courts force lawmakers to adequately fund K-12 education — declaring that the students “inhabit one of the lowest-rated and worst-performing state school systems in the United States.”

The suit, filed in the 1st Judicial District Court in Carson City, by Educate Nevada Now asks the court 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.”

The 37-page lawsuit cites a litany of woes — including the fact Nevada ranked 50th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia in Education Week’s most recent Quality Counts report’s Chance-for-Success Index and has the third largest class sizes and ranked first in the U.S. in class size growth according to the National Education Association.

The suit further noted that in the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) only 34 percent of Nevada fourth graders were proficient in math and only 31 percent were proficient in reading. Both rates were even lower for eighth graders.

Nevada holds “places near the top of every ‘bad’ list, and the bottom of every ‘good’ list, in myriad rankings of public schools systems and student performance across the country,” the suit states.

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 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 […].” 
The quote is cut off before the part that says such schools must be open “at least six months in every year …”

The suit further notes that the constitution states that the Legislature shall appropriate education funds “the Legislature deems sufficient …” That would seem to dictate that lawmakers are to determine what is “sufficient” rather than
the courts.

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 this year approved 3 percent raises for teachers. It also comes while the Clark County teachers union is preparing to circulate petitions seeking to increase sales and gaming taxes by $1.4 billion a year.

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.

Amanda Morgan, an attorney for Educate Nevada Now, told the Las Vegas newspaper after the suit was filed that the intent of the litigation is to prod lawmakers into addressing education funding.

“The court won’t say you need to put x amount of dollars into education,” Morgan was quoted as saying. “But it will say, ‘What you’re doing right now doesn’t meet your constitutional obligation. Go fix it.’”

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

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.

Editorial: Nevada slipping in its embrace of personal and economic freedom

Nevada ranking 12th in the nation in terms of economic and personal freedom, according to the Cato Institute, is not too shabby — until you notice that we’ve fallen from No. 5 in 2000.

Having legalized gambling and county-option legalized prostitution probably helps in the personal freedom category, but we’ve been marked down for continually raising taxes and having too many business regulations and license requirements.

But what is really frightening is that Cato’s Freedom in the 50 States only analyzed economic data through 2014, which fails to take into account that the 2015 Legislature passed, and the governor signed, a record-setting $1.5 billion increase in taxes. Who knows how far Nevada will fall once that data is taken into account?

Cato analysts scored all 50 states on more than 200 standards including fiscal policies, as well as personal and regulatory freedom.

Cato points out that Nevada state-level taxes have risen from a low of 4.9 percent of personal income in 2009 to about 5.9 percent in 2014. Local taxes have also risen. Also government debt is well above average and rising — from 22 percent of income in 2000, state and local debt in 2014 stood at more than 26 percent of income. That is probably partly due to the $40 billion in unfunded liability for the public employee pension fund.

The analysts mistakenly credited the state Supreme Court for some of the rise in taxation. “Nevada’s fiscal policy has worsened over time, a fact that might have something to do with a 2003 Nevada Supreme Court decision setting aside part of the state constitution, which required a supermajority for tax increases,” the Cato piece reports, neglecting to notice that the court repudiated that Guinn v. Legislature decision three years later. So we’ll just have to blame the lawmakers and executive branch.

We lost freedom points in the area of education, Cato notes, “Nevada was one of the worst states for educational freedom. Private schools are tightly regulated, facing mandatory state approval, mandatory teacher licensing, and detailed private school curriculum control. However, our index does not take account of the educational savings account plan passed in 2015, which in 2014 would have raised its educational freedom score to average.”

Cato did not note that the education savings accounts have yet to be implemented due to litigation questioning the law’s constitutionality.

Nevadans should be concerned about how we will rank in future analyses of our embrace of fundamental freedoms, because freedom requires equal applications of the laws and taxation. The Nevada Constitution dictates a “uniform and equal rate of assessment and taxation.”

But the state has been handing out tax breaks and tax credits and outright grants to companies that curry favor with public officials, leaving the rest of the taxpayers to foot the bill for public services needed by those favored few. Hardly conducive to freedom or equality.

Tesla Motors was given $1.3 billion in tax breaks and credits for its new battery manufacturing plant near Sparks that opened recently with much fanfare and at a much smaller size than promised. One critic called it a Potemkin Village.

Then there were millions in similar credits for Chinese-financed Faraday Future, which says it will build an electric car manufacturing plant, though it does not even have a prototype.

And where’s the fairness in a $1.2 million grant to solar panel installer SolarCity, which has since shutdown most operations in the state?

Nevada was once known as a live and let live state. We need to return to those values — letting people make choices for themselves and keep their own money, rather than send it to Carson City to dole out to others.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.