Saturday, March 26, 2005

Column 22b - Education

Nevada ranks 48th out of 50 states plus the District of Columbia in education spending per pupil. Nevada’s funding for public schools grew the least of any state between 1999 and 2001 – less than an 1% increase over those two school years. The 2004 Quality Counts survey by Education Week, gave Nevada a grade of D+ for adequacy of resources.

As noted in an earlier column, the Bush administration wants to take funds from Federal land sales in Nevada that were earmarked for education and use them to offset the Federal deficit. Efforts to create a lottery in Nevada to benefit education have been consistently opposed by casino interests, and will probably be defeated again this year.

In the first term of the Bush administration, the vaunted No Child Left Behind program was under funded in Nevada by $187 million, leaving it to the state to make up the difference in a classic case of an unfunded Federal mandate. The original No Child Left Behind law promised $35 million more for the most disadvantaged students in reading and math than the Bush 2005 budget provides. According to America Coming Together, this shortfall means that 38,551 Nevada students that would have had smaller classes will not, 4,885 children that could have had pre-kindergarten will not, and 4,748 new teachers that could have been certified will not.

Because of under funding, only 40% of eligible children can participate in Head Start – the Federal government has provided only 29% of the funding needed to enroll all of the children who qualify into Head Start. The Children’s Defense Fund says that the Bush 2005 budget shortchanges the state’s youngest children by $115 million. At the other end of the educational spectrum, tuition at public universities in Nevada increased by 15% in the 2003-2005 time period. The President has made much of his promise to provide more Pell Grants for college education, but never mentions that, at the same time, he froze the maximum Pell Grant while tuition has been increasing, denying 9,434 Nevada $22.2 million in promised grants to students with financial need.

In 2003, Republicans in the State Senate, led by Bill Raggio, killed a plan to increase school funding to cover the No Child Left Behind shortfall over two years.

You would think that this would be one of those rare columns that writes itself – after all, who is against education? Who is not for children? In last November’s election, the first Ballot Question was: “Shall the Nevada Constitution be amended to require the Nevada Legislature to fund the operation of the public schools for kindergarten through grade 12 before funding any other part of the state budget for the next biennium?” The good news is that the Question passed. The bad news is that it passed by 56% to 44%, roughly 447,000 to 342,000, and in Washoe County it failed.

What are we to make of this? Are we in Nevada such faint supporters of our children and of education that 44% of us don’t think it’s a priority? And are we in Washoe County actually against it being a priority? I find that hard to believe, but if you look at the overall picture of Federal funding in the 2005 budget and State actions such as that of the Senate in 2003, you really have to wonder where our priorities are. Jefferson said “Millions for defense, not one cent for tribute.” Now our government’s position seems to be “Millions for offense, not one cent for children.” It’s time for all us “bleeding heart liberals” who care about children, education, and the future of this country to stand up and be heard, or the dumbing down of this country under to the intellectual level of the Republican leadership will continue and we will be lost, indeed.

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