blank.gif (51 bytes) Education

‘Just the Facts, Ma’am’

Looking at Educational Spending in
Nevada as Sgt. Joe Friday Would Have Done

by Mary Novello

n Sept. 23, 1999, The Express, a newspaper in London, England, began its leading editorial with the following statement: “As a general rule, any utterance from a teaching union should be taken as proof that the opposite is true.”

The Nevada State Education Association’s rationale for its proposed 5 percent profits tax on non-gaming businesses lends real credence to the warning of The Express.

Not only does this particular tax initiative bring up a certain sense of déja vu (see “Seems Like Old Times,” Nevada Journal, September/October, 1999). It also demonstrates what slippery little devils numbers can be—witness their manipulation by the Arthur Andersen group a decade ago (see “A Very Taxing Study,” same issue).

So, let’s imitate Sgt. Joe Friday and just focus on the facts.  Let’s take the statements, claims and figures of the NSEA—plus those of the National Education Association, of whch the NSEA is the Nevada face—and compare them with the numbers provided by the United States government, the Nevada State Department of Education, and the 17 school districts in Nevada.

Misleading Comparisons

According to an Aug. 12, 1999 Reno Gazette-Journal article, the teacher union claims that Nevada ranks 40th in the United States for per-pupil spending. Actually, the latest figures from the 1998 Digest of Education Statistics place Nevada at 36th. But even that figure is misleading, since it includes federal dollars spent on education in Nevada. When per-pupil appropriations by and within states are compared, Nevada consistently ranks between 5th highest and 15th highest, according the Annual Survey of Government Finances of the U.S. Bureau of the Census.

Put the federal dollars back into the mix and the first five positions on national per-pupil rankings are held by New Jersey, Washington DC, New York, Alaska, and Connecticut. Aside from Alaska—where the cost of living, for geographic reasons, is astronomical—the state of schools in the other Big Four Spending Locations could hardly be called enviable. Nevada’s $5,320 per pupil was within comfortable striking distance of the national average of $6,146 for that year.

The unanswerable question here, of course, is, how much is enough? Studies have repeatedly shown little, if any, correlation between per-pupil spending and student performance in tests. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and the Census Bureau, Utah spends the lowest per pupil, $3,280 a year, but on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test its students outperform their counterparts in New York, which spends $8,162 per pupil. California and Montana spend about the same—$4,917 and $4,985 respectively—but Montana students’ test scores are nearly 12 percent higher.

What about Nevada’s growth? The famous 1991 Andersen study was skewed to predict spiraling costs with continued growth. Ken Lange, executive director of the NSEA, would agree. He was quoted in the same Gazette-Journal article as saying, “Our basic premise at this point is that we want to broaden the tax base because the current structure ... isn’t keeping pace with student growth.”

Up Means Up, But Down Does Also

Normally such a statement would seem to suggest that lower growth, or even population loss, would therefore reduce costs. Not so, according to an article on Sept. 28, 1999, in the same newspaper: “Fewer students would seem to mean less expenditures, but that’s not the case.... It costs more to educate fewer students in a large geographic area.” Fortunately, these poor districts are blessed with “The Nevada Plan”—the state financing mechanism that provides more state money to school districts with smaller local tax bases. It is interesting to note that via the “Nevada Plan,... considered one of the fairest state school-financing methods in the country,” two districts will receive more money per student from the state government, above and beyond the revenues they can raise themselves, than the national average for all the states’ spending last year.

Moving on to the other reason for the NSEA’s proposed initiative, teachers’ salaries, the union would like to move out of its merely above-average, 15th-from-the-top ranking. Back in 1994-95, according to the NEA publication “Rankings of the States,” Nevada was 22nd, and the next year, the state was 21st. So to be at 15th and holding by 1996-97 would seem pretty healthy.

But exactly what, in dollars, does that 15th-place ranking represent? Inquiring minds want to know.

A story in the Las Vegas Review-Journal on April 30, 1998—quoting a survey released by another teacher union, the American Federation of Teachers—put the average salary for Nevada teachers during the 1996-97 school year, including benefits, at $40,817—or 106.2 percent of the national average. But the NCES, in its “State Comparisons of Education Statistics: 1969-70 to 1996-97” put the figure for Nevada at $37,340, not including benefits. (In current dollars, that was a 292.4 percent increase over 1969-70—and very close to the national average increase of 315.5 percent.)

Still, all those figures are two years old at the least.  So NPRI set out to discover the most recent numbers for Nevada teachers.

Salaries & Bennies

The figures in the accompanying chart for the 1998-99 school year come from the Nevada State Department of Education and the state’s 17 school districts. For this period the average teacher’s pay in Nevada was $40,542—a figure that disregards the one-time bonuses for master’s degrees and doctorates that some counties give, as well as longevity bonuses. Using the same formula as the U.S. Department of Labor did for its publication 3090-27, the $40,542 breaks down to $29.54 per hour.

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All too frequently when salaries are discussed, benefits packages are overlooked. All 17 Nevada school districts pay into the Public Employees Retirement System (P.E.R.S.) an amount equal to 18.75 percent of each teacher’s pay. In addition, all the districts cover medical, dental, vision, and some life insurance for each teacher. One district even covers 50 percent of the medical insurance for dependents. The average P.E.R.S. package is worth $7,602 and the average insurance package is worth $3,563. These benefits raise the average teacher’s pay in Nevada to $51,707.

The salaries of beginning teachers are comparable. Beginning teachers in the state of Nevada who possess bachelor’s degrees, make an average salary of $27,692, excluding benefits. This reflects an average increase of 3.3 percent over the past two years. It also reflects the legacy of—in the words of the Review-Journal— a “blatant protection racket” demanded by the union in behalf of existing teachers to discourage out-of-state educators from relocating to Las Vegas. Under the scheme, new hires—regardless of experience—were required to start at entry-level pay. A result was to drag down the county salary average, since it ensured that most new hires were newbies, fresh out of ed school.

The Nevada State Education Association has declared that it is prepared to spend about $1.2 million to take the proposal for a 5 percent profits tax on all business except gaming to voters, if necessary. It would seem that if they invested that money in a non-aggressive financial vehicle for the two to five years that would be required for the proposed legislation to become operative, they could then spread quite a bunch of money around the sc hools. We would all be better served by that. NJ

Mary Novello, Ed.D. is a senior research fellow with the Nevada Policy Research Institute. She can be contacted through NPRI's website, www.npri.org.


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