Saturday, April 23, 2011

Nevada's Education Budget

It has been quite some time since I updated this blog. I hope all of you have been well. These times in our country are difficult, at best, but my hope is that things will improve.

Sometimes it seems impossible to maintain one's own sense of peace in the midst of chaos. Keeping that peaceful center has been the most challenging aspect of my life recently. I feel like I'm in the eye of a hurricane, and whichever way the wind ends up blowing, I'll still be in a world of trouble and hurt.

I'm speaking of Nevada's Education Budget. First of all, I believe the Nevada State, Clark County, and Clark County School District budgets should all be transparent and made available to unions and our citizens in order to independently confirm the true state of those budgets. People want to know if things are really as bad as those in high office say they are, before we reduce salaries and cut jobs. There may be better ways to save monies than by playing with people's lives and livelihoods.

I just spent four days of my Spring Break in my state capital, Carson City, working to advocate for education and, especially, for my students. I appreciate all the time our state legislators spared to meet with myself and my colleagues. What was so disappointing was what I learned.

There are many legislators who are blindly following in lockstep with our Governor's proposed budget plan. Many of them literally and robotically stated, "I am supporting Governor Sandoval's plan." Weren't they elected to represent their constituents? How do their constituents want them to vote on this budget? I most certainly did not hear enough evidence to convince me that they are actually working for their constituents. Following party lines is all well and good, but not when that distances them from the will of the people who elected them.

As an educator, my profession has been demonized and even scapegoated as the cause of the budget woes of my state. My colleagues and I work hard to educate children, even using some of our own monies to supplement those of our school district, to ensure a better education for our students. We did not create the budget crisis, yet the shortfalls are going to be balanced on our backs and those of our students, the children of Nevada.

My state does not have a non-volatile, dedicated revenue source to fund education, so we usually end up with education cuts as soon as there are economic problems. A large part of the education budget is in salaries. Being highly qualified is State-mandated, and personally costs each teacher tens of thousands of dollars in education to achieve that Highly Qualified status in order to maintain his or her state license to teach in Nevada. Without a highly qualified teacher in each classroom, there is no one to educate Nevada's children. Why would anyone spend tens of thousands of dollars to obtain a Master's Degree and not be compensated with some adequate combination of salary and benefits? Would you?

Share the sacrifice is the mantra these days. We were sacrificing even during the years of prosperity by not being allowed to fully participate in the shared benefits that many of those employed in the private sector enjoyed for many years. Nevada State has been consistently on the bottom end of the list of states in per pupil expenditures for many years, including those years of prosperity. Although I absolutely agree with adequately compensating police officers and firefighters, our 4% increase over two years compared to a 26% or so increase in one year cannot exactly be called a shared benefit. We were simply "granted" minimal funding during those years of prosperity. Now in the lean times, we have not had a wage increase. Those salaries we earned through hard work and paying out of our own pockets, to further our education in order to become better teachers and earn a living wage, are now on the chopping block. The new budget actually cuts compensation for what the education our state mandates its teachers achieve. It also provides for less-than-adequate funding for the education of Nevada's children, our most precious resource. The latter is both immoral and unethical. A teacher's working conditions are our student's learning conditions.

Being an extremely lean state in the area of taxation has created a deep hole in my state's revenues. The Nevada state budget is so lean, one of the leanest in the United States, that education makes up more than 50% of our state budget, yet our per pupil expenditures are at the bottom compared to education funding in almost every other state. Those who want to drastically cut education say we've increased education spending tremendously in the past few decades. Well, of course we have. Our population also exponentially increased during that same time period. What do you expect would be required when rapid population growth creates the fifth largest school district in the country? Then, when education funding was tied to property taxes in a volatile market with so much speculation, sub-prime mortgages, mortgage fraud, and one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country, just what did people think would happen? Nevada state has been literally gambling with the education of its own children, who are the future of our state. Now, it's the teachers and our students who are paying the price of this gamble. You can't get much lower than the bottom in education spending, but Governor Sandoval and some legislators are trying to do just that. They want to redefine the very minimum of spending, justifying their cuts with whatever non-mainstream research they can find, whether or not it's actually valid.

I attempted to begin a dialogue about dedicated revenue sources for education with some legislators, so that the state doesn't have to continually play these budget games with education. They stated that we're in a budget crisis. So, I asked, why can't we deal with that AND look to the future of education in Nevada by finding multiple revenue sources to fund education so that we are never stuck in this situation again? I stated that maybe we should raise taxes, or even create a state income tax. Many legislators, mostly Republican, looked at me as if I were an alien from Area 51. They are so against any taxes, that they're willing to sacrifice the education of our children, and the future of our state along with it. Many legislators won't even touch the mining tax, which hasn't changed since the first Nevada State constitution of 1864. Nevada State is the 3rd largest producer of gold on the planet, behind the entire continents of Australia and Africa. We are the 2nd largest silver producer in the USA behind the state of Alaska. With so much of our non-renewable resources being extracted out of our state, why are we in a budget crisis? Tax revenues provide the funding for the state infrastructure, yet they don't want to raise the few taxes we have, and refuse to posit any new taxes. Some legislators in Carson City stated that they want to lower our sales tax rate to 7.75%, raise business taxes on small businesses, and to further lower taxes on big business. This will further reduce tax revenues tremendously during a budget crisis! You can't have your cake and eat it, too.

Many politicians and the corporate media who favor them also seem to believe that the public relations practice of demonizing teachers (most of whom are doing a fine job) by focusing on the few ineffective teachers will create more support from the public for broad education budget cuts. They say that few ineffective teachers are fired, which is not true. In addition, many ineffective teachers are either let go during or at the end of their probationary status or leave the profession on their own. Fifty percent of the teachers that go into teaching leave the profession within five years. How many other professions have such a high attrition rate?

They also state that our low test scores prove that most of Nevada's teachers are ineffective. Well, of course our test scores are lower. Unlike other states who test their students at the end of the school year on a full school year's worth of curriculum, Nevada State law requires we test our students at the end of the second trimester. What kind of test results would you expect?

We also aren't comparing apples with apples when we look at test scores. All states don't use the same number of students in subgroups in reporting their test results. Nevada State has set a much higher standard than do most other states. We use much lower numbers of students in our subgroups, which requires us to report the test results of that subgroup. When we use 25 students as the number of students in a particular subgroup, this requires a school that has at least 25 students in that subgroup to report their scores. When you compare this to states that use 200 or 300 students in a subgroup, as is the practice in many other states, they effectively never have to report the test scores of students in that subgroup. Those scores also never get factored into the reports of that school's Annual Yearly Progress report. This practice of fudging data artificially inflates the scores of that state's schools, that state's performance in testing, as well as its educational ranking among other states. Nevada does not do this, so our scores and ranking are lower than others, in comparison. If the majority of other states followed Nevada's practice of using lower subgroup numbers, I'm certain Nevada's ranking in education in the United States would skyrocket. On the other hand, that would remove the ability of some legislators to use "ineffective" teachers as an excuse to "reform" education and cut our education budget.

Earlier this week, I met with our State Treasurer Kate Marshall, who broke down the unemployment rate by level of education. Our overall state unemployment rate is 13.4%. Nevada State unemployment rates by education level are as follows:

College graduate: 4 - 4.5%
HS graduate: 10 - 10.5%
Non-HS graduate: ~ 14.5%

From the looks of it, being educated increases one's chances of employment (Unless you are a teacher in Nevada. I wonder what the unemployment rate for college graduates will look like this time next year, after they lay off between 2,000 to 6,000 employees in the Clark County School District (it's the 5th largest school district in the USA) and 200 in the Washoe School District, in addition to the layoffs in other districts statewide?). As the labor pool increases, wages go down. Low wages don't attract educated workers to our state. We do have a large number of people in our state who are uneducated or who only have a high school diploma, many of whom make relatively low wages. However, if you are a valet or a dealer for a major casino, you probably make more than do most teachers with a Master's Degree and more than ten years of experience. Good for them! They, too, deserve to make a living wage.

Nevada State competes in a global economy, yet maintains a predominantly service-based economy. If our state really wants low unemployment rates and desires to attract other types of businesses to our state to diversify our economy, we need an educated workforce to compete globally. To do this, we need an adequately funded education system, from pre-K through University. We also need to reward teachers for furthering their education. An uneducated teacher is an oxymoron. Our state will prove how much it values education, its teachers, and its students by how it funds education and pays its teachers based on their level of educational attainment. Business owners outside of Nevada are watching.

Repeatedly taking a broad sword to the education budget will NOT produce an educated workforce; rather, it may create an exodus, rather than an influx, of an educated populace who are a valuable part of the state's tax revenue, knowledge and leadership base. Honestly, if I were living elsewhere, or if I were a business owner looking to relocate my business and my family, I would not move to Nevada because I want to live in a state that values and properly funds education. As a lifelong learner, my options for college and graduate-level study are being drastically cut. If I wanted to change careers and remain in Nevada, my opportunity to retrain is being limited by these cuts, as our public universities are being forced to cut entire programs.

If I were thinking of going into teaching, as a logical choice or for monetary gain, I would find another profession. I would not choose to work in a profession that is demonized and those in it treated with contempt and disrespect. I would not go into a profession which some politicians are intent on union-busting, in order to strip a teacher's right to collectively bargain and have basic due process rights, in order to get rid of more highly-paid and experienced teachers. They want to pay lower wages so they can balance the state budget, rather than do what's right for Nevada's children by adequately funding education, as well as paying a living wage to their teachers.

If you believe that a teacher is nothing more than a glorified babysitter, PLEASE pay me the minimum wage for babysitting each student. I won't even charge you for all the work I regularly do before and after my work day or during the weekend. Let's see, that's $7.55 per hour x 7.5 hours of work in a day = $56.625 per student. Multiply that times the 28 students I "babysit" and I'd earn $1585 per day times the 184 days I work in a year. Hmmm, that's a total of $291,732. I'll gladly take that, especially with the higher class sizes my legislators will be sending me next school year! If you want to know what I make as a teacher, well, in terms of money, it is many orders of magnitude less than babysitting would pay. In terms of my students, I work hard to make a positive difference in their lives. I am proud to be their teacher and want nothing but the best for each and every one of them. I empower everyone to go into teaching, and to help remind the public, the media, and our legislators of the value of education. It's not, "Those that can't do, teach." It's more like, "Those that can do well, teach."

People don't go into teaching for the money, although teachers do expect to be paid a fair, living wage. The pay-for-performance business model works for creating widgets in a factory. How dare people treat my students as if they are nothing more than a bunch of widgets in a teaching factory with a simple set of rules to follow to reach a clear, straightforward solution! Yes, rudimentary cognitive thinking is needed to teach. In fact, teaching requires the highest level of thinking, metacognition. Watch the TEDtalk by Dan Pink on the science of motivation. The link is at the end of this post. This research illustrates why pay-for-performance incentives will not work, and will also probably harm teaching. It also shows why politicians and business-people, all of whom are outside of education and most of whom have never even taught in a classroom, are the last people to determine how to reform education. If you want effective education reform, ask the teachers who are still in the trenches. Give us the autonomy to use our mastery and intrinsic motivation towards the purpose of reforming education from the inside. Education reform is not, however, going to solve the budget crisis.

"'The SILVER Spark rebuild Nevada's economy by igniting innovation and creating knowledge-based jobs that are key to the overall economic development strategy...,' said Sandoval. ...studies have pointed to knowledge-based jobs as the basis for building these economic goals." (

Which comes first, providing adequate funding for education in order to expand and diversify our economy, or having a vibrant and diverse economy that provides adequate funding for education? Gutting education douses the spark before anyone can even dream of expanding the light of education. With these drastic cuts, there will never even be a spark, silver or any other color.

Here is the link to the TEDtalk by Dan Pink on the science of motivation: