Big money

The state’s leaders ponder how to react to a study calling on Nevada to make up for lost years

A new study   recommends major expenditures on Nevada’s education system. Here, Wooster High School instructor Jennifer Lienau teaches a class in French.

A new study recommends major expenditures on Nevada’s education system. Here, Wooster High School instructor Jennifer Lienau teaches a class in French.

Photo By David Robert

An anxiously awaited study of Nevada’seducation problems has been released, and it calls for $3,600 more per student per year. That’s in addition to the current funding level of $4,500 per student.

Some officials expressed surprise at the level of spending recommended, which is probably beyond the state’s revenue sources as they now stand. Some of the recommended new spending is being driven by the federal “No Child Left Behind” law, and part of it by state performance standards and guidelines given by lawmakers to the firm commissioned to do the report. That firm, Augenblick, Palaich and Associates of Denver, did the study for $225,000.

The legislative staff is preparing a synopsis to make the long study more comprehensible to the public.

Some observers suggested that much of the surprise is feigned, since the Nevada Board of Education had already been proposing spending in the same ballpark—$1.1 billion. Many educators say the state has to make up ground from years when education spending was held down.

Critics of public education had already been trying to discredit the study. The very conservative editorial board of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which describes right wing Sen. Bob Beers as a “moderate,” last year ran an editorial claiming that state lawmakers chose the firm “to get the right answer.”

In June, Beers attacked Augenblick, Palaich for suggesting teachers should have received higher pay increases in order to keep pace with the rate of inflation, keep the state competitive for teachers, and make up for losses suffered when pay rates were held down. Beers said that to arrive at that conclusion, Augenblick, Palaich had used a flawed formula to propose a 7.8 percent raise. “It is designed to inflate the inflation rate,” Beers said. “It sure looks like we are going in a biased direction with this study.”

The conservative Nevada Policy Research Institute in May posted an essay by Joe Enge. He wrote, “The study’s final report is to be in August, just prior to elections and fruitful, perhaps, for the Democratic Party statewide campaign to raise Nevada’s per pupil spending. Or, the time span from the laying of this egg of a study to its hatching could just be a coincidence. Is it also a coincidence that the firm hired to do the study has a track record of bringing in the highest per-pupil figures?”

However, most analysts say release of the study after, not before, the election would have been the advantageous timing, since it would have spared the report from being put in a political crossfire and becoming a campaign issue.

Washoe County Sen. William Raggio, who chairs the Legislative Committee on Education and has been a leader on education accountability issues, offered more moderate skepticism of the Augenblick, Palaich study. He said the hearings held by Augenblick, Palaich during the course of the study were severely limited in who testified at the hearings.

“You have to understand two things. This is a study. Primarily, the panels were educators [who expressed] an educators’ wish list, even though the goal is to achieve one hundred percent of our performance standards over a period of time. Secondly, it’s outside the realm of being realistic insofar as potential revenue to fund this. And there’s always a question of, does just adding money—which in this sense involves mostly staffing, counseling, it does not talk about even an increase in teachers’ salaries, things of that kind. So the number is really—it isn’t all inclusive.”

The hearings were also closed to the public, which heightened suspicion. A legal opinion said the sessions were outside the authority of the Nevada open meeting law. Augenblick, Palaich could have opened the meetings to the public but chose not to do so.

John Augenblick did not return calls for comment.

In several states, state lawmakers have had to cope with a relatively new development—an education adequacy movement that uses lawsuits to force the state and local school districts to fund up to levels determined by the courts to be adequate education funding. Raggio says Augenblick, Palaich has helped enable such lawsuits.

“This firm has, to my knowledge, been utilized through its reports for the genesis of some of those lawsuits.”

The Nevada Policy Research Institute will have a witness to testify against the Augenblick, Palaich study at a legislative hearing today.

But Raggio says he doesn’t worry about a Nevada adequacy lawsuit.

“I don’t, because I think our Nevada plan is pretty well established. We’ve never had too many people criticize it. You know, you can always ask for more and do more.”

Richard Siegel of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada issued a statement that said in part, “The [kindergarten through 12th grade] system in Nevada has suffered badly from a state approach to funding that barely goes beyond incremental budgeting. … The comparisons with other states prove that our state government has not taken seriously enough its obligations to students and parents. The report makes clear that these obligations involve not only the schools and students in aggregate but also the discrete categories of students who are vital parts of the No Child Left Behind focus. It is very expensive to adequately teach at-risk, ESL, special needs and other discrete groups of our K-12 students. But we will not succeed without attention to what they need—as judged by our best educators and by national consultants.”

Those who want to stigmatize the Augenblick, Palaich study may be aided by this information: On Aug. 31, 2004, John Augenblick contributed $250 to the Democratic National Committee. He made an additional $500 contribution to the DNC, and he also gave $750 to John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. Robert Palaich gave Kerry $550. Nothing about this is improper, of course, but it could confirm Augenblick’s critics in their suspicions.

One of the dangers for the Augenblick, Palaich study now is that, because it was released in time for voters to have their say, it could become a political football among competing candidates.

“Yes, it can be,” Raggio said. “It certainly will be utilized for political purposes. And that’s not necessarily bad or good.”