Giant school districts sometimes make poor choices. Such is the case in this report from MSNBC on how a school district – just four slots larger than the Clark County School District on the list of America’s most giant school districts – is paying over 700 teachers to not do any work. Paying them in full, with full benefits, summers off, the whole nine years.
This will make you sick:
“I don’t know what their ultimate qualifications are. I just know they cost us $15.76 an hour right now,” said Paul Gerner, associate superintendent for the school district’s facilities division.
During the last school year, the district spent almost half a million dollars on fire guards.
Channel 13 Action News broke the story. You can bet it wasn’t Jim Rogers’ channel 3!
Here’s the tale of how Clark County School District bureaucrats managed to blow a charitable contribution in seven figures. The money has since been donated the UNLV (one million) and Temple Beth Sholom (another million).
Fortunately, no school district bureaucrats lost their jobs over the fiasco.
This morning’s Las Vegas Sun featured a guest column from state government economist Elliot Parker. In his column, Parker lays out his case for more tax hikes, which will be required to hire more government employees and give them higher wages. You can read his column here.
Parker’s column essentially says Nevada’s people have been terribly chinzy when it comes to funding government, particularly as compared to other states. It would be a mistake, he implies, to not raise taxes and further expand government.
As an economist, government or not, Parker should be embarrassed by his intellectual dishonesty.
According to the most recent version of the Statistical Abstract of the United States, only 5.5 percent of Nevadans work for the state or local governments, the lowest share in the 50 states by far.
This is probably a true statement, although the Statistical Abstract of the United States is very large, and Parker should offer a more detailed attribution. However, it presents only one half of what’s wrong with Nevada’s structure of government.
The very same authority (the Statistical Abstract of the United States) also says our government employees are paid the six highest of all states. Here is the Statistical Abstract of the United States. Table 448 – here is a direct link – column M details average earnings in 2006, the most recent year reported. [Subsequent correction: column M details local government only. Column J details state government, where Nevada ranks sixteenth, still above the national average.]
These wage numbers – in which Nevada ranks the sixth highest state – do not reflect Nevada’s exceptionally generous benefits package.
All of Nevada’s government employees participate in perhaps the only “defined benefit” retirement plan found in the entire state, public or private sector. And for local government and school employees in Clark and Washoe County – well over half of all state and local government employees in Nevada – taxpayers foot the entire bill.
To put it in terms that most taxpayers can understand, where we lose 6.2% of our paycheck to fund social security, our government employees do not. So, for a given wage, they take home a bigger paycheck. (The rest of Nevada government employees, by the way, fund half of their own retirement plans out of their paychecks but it’s over 10% rather than 6.2% – on the other hand, they get alot more retirement income and retire much younger than the rest of us.)
If you factor in how government retirement works in Nevada compared to the five states that outrank us in average government pay, we’d likely rank higher than sixth.
Nevada’s “structural deficit” lies in giving government unions too much power, which has resulted in our having the fewest government employees per thousand residents (dutifully reported by Parker) who are paid at or near the top of America’s government pay scale (incredibly omitted by Parker).
Parker next rambles down the taxes-per-capita path without attributing his statistics. For example:
Adding in spending by local governments, Nevada ranks 48th in government spending as a share of income.
Since the Statistical Abstract of the United States does not explicitly calculate this, he owes us a peek at the bar napkin he scratched his out on.
Statistical Abstract of the United States, Table 424, column B has total revenue by state for 2005. Table 12, column AK, has 2005 population estimates, which appear to be overstated for Nevada. Nevertheless, you can put the two of those tables together to calculate tax revenue per person. Nevada ranks 29th, at $7,868 per person.
Since this clearly does not support the “chintzy Nevadans” refrain, and since Nevada’s historically modest government has not surprisingly produced a society with a robust economy, low poverty and high incomes, Parker had to track down average income levels. They’re here, in table 684, column M (unfortunately, this lists family median income by state for 2006, which is not quite average income for 2005, but it’s close).
And Nevada ranks 42nd, ahead of 8 states. Not 48th.
Parker finishes up with the now almost-legendary deception that:
The Tax Foundation reports that Nevada has the next-to-lowest tax burden in the nation, just slightly above Alaska. That ranking is roughly where we have been since the 1970s.
The Tax Foundation actually found that while we rank low on the taxes we assess on ourselves, we rank high on the taxes we assess from non-residents (tourists), and at the national median for total spending per capita. Once again, Parker selects a deceptively small subset of the available information to lead readers to an incorrect conclusion.
In case his subtle sins of omission are not enough, Parker finishes with a couple of whopping lies:
…there are also many things the private sector cannot efficiently provide. Like national defense, affordable and available public education is one of these.
Unlike most other states, Nevada has no private universities, so this is an important responsibility.
These are really the heart of the matter for Parker. As a government economist in Nevada, he’s been enjoying doubled cost-of-living raises for years (once for inflation and again from the NSHE “merit” program under which almost all professors get an extra COLA bump). And if we don’t raise taxes, he may not get either next year.
Of course the private sector can efficiently provide education. In Las Vegas, for example, Faith Lutheran‘s middle school tuition was $7,260 in 2006 including capital costs and debt service; that same year, Nevada public school funding was $7,345 not including capital costs and debt service.
And there are a growing number of private colleges in Nevada, including: Touro College, Sierra Nevada College, DeVry University, National University, ITT Technical Institute, University of Phoenix, Morrison University, University of Southern Nevada, with my apologies to the many more I don’t have time to list.
Las Vegas Judge Valorie Vegas has awarded $340-thousand to a company who lost a school district contract. The company provided online classes and tests that teachers could take to get raises, but lost the contract after school district administrators decided the classes were too easy. It’s feelings hurt, it sued. Judge Vegas gave them the money – right out of our classrooms.
The school district is suing, according to coverage in the Review Journal.
William G. Howell, associate professor in the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, and Martin R. West, assistant professor of education at Brown University, found that most people are off by half when asked to guess how much they and their fellow taxpayers spend on government schools.
In sum, Americans think that far less is being spent on the nation’s public schools than is actually the case. The vast majority of the public thinks we spend amounts that can only be described as minuscule, and almost 96 percent of the public underestimate either per-pupil spending in their districts or teacher salaries in their states.
One bright spot on the Clark County School District horizon is the concept of empowerment schools. Pilot programs have proven very successful.
The Clark County School District pays $300 per hour for advice. Details here.
Nevada’s ranking on K-12 spending is not simple to calculate, nor without controversy
We actually rank 37th in education spending – at least we ranked 37th for the 2004/2005 school year anyway. That is the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics run by the federal government. This is a source that seems far more believable than local advocates. (In the two school years since 04/05, Nevada’s per-pupil education spending has been increased faster than the national average increase, so our ranking is likely even higher than 37th for this school year).
Each year’s survey results are called the “Core of Common Data” and they form the basis for all national rankings of school systems.
Here are the steps to determine Nevada’s ranking:
- Download the 2005 (v.1a – Final) zip file and uncompress it
- Imported it into a database, say Access or SQL
- Use a data analysis tool such as Crystal Reports to summarize the results by state
- Export the summary data by state into an Excel datafile, such as this one. (you must have Excel installed to use this file)
Anyone can follow these directions and arrive at the same conclusion.
Nevada’s per-pupil expenditure of $8,707 ranks 37th, far from the bottom that some claim. Our payroll benefits per student ranks 30th.
Anticipating The Counter-argument
Those who say our funding ranks at the bottom insist that total expenditures is a deceptive number upon which to gauge our education spending. They suggest you should break total expenditures into “Current” and “Non-Current” expenditures, and throw out the “Non-Current” numbers. And indeed, Nevada ranks lower amongst states in expenditures when you toss out part of each state’s expenditures.
Conversely, Nevada’s “Non-Current” ranking is much higher than our Total Expenditure ranking. In fact, Nevada ranks first in the difference in national rankings of “Current” and “Non-Current” expenditures (our ranking moves 33 positions, from 46 current to 13 non-current). The fastest growing state, Arizona, ranks 38th in non-current.
It turns out that our administrators in Nevada do not follow NCES guidelines on classifying total expenses between the two categories “current” and “non-current.” In fact, they include some of what NCES calls “current” in with their “non-current” totals, deflating “current” spending and inflating “non-current” spending. They appear to do this in order to facilitate spending construction bond funding on operating costs.
States Nevada Leads
Many experts, including the Rand Institute in this recent, extensive research report, say full-day kindergarten does not improve students’ long-term learning accomplishment. Some studies claim to measure a short-term improvement, but by the time children are in high school, there is no measurable improvement in academic achievement.
But it became a political issue in the 2005 and 2007 legislative sessions. The outcome was earmarked state funding for full-day kindergarten in schools where more than half of the children were eligible for Free or Reduced Lunch (such children are labeled with the acronym FRL). Eligibility is determined by each family’s “legal” income – underground income does not count.
As the 2007 legislative session got underway, a group of off-site administrators at the Clark County School District captured headlines with their own study that showed a slight but measured improvement in second grade achievement amongst children eligible for free or reduced lunch who had full day kindergarten, versus those who hadn’t.
Because the legislature’s criteria for full-day kindergarten was the percentage of children in each school eligible for FRL, the school district had children who were eliglble and those who weren’t both in full day kindergarten in some schools, and both types of children who were not in full day kindergarten in others.
Here is the first story in the Las Vegas Review Journal about the administrator’s findings. As you can see from the correction dated six weeks later, it took quite some time to sort out the administrator’s statements. Critical analysis actually started just a few days later.
The Clark County School District answered questions with half-truths and non-answers for weeks, until they finally were forced to release the rest of their findings: full day kindergarten reduced the academic performance of children from middle and upper class homes.
Children from middle and upper class homes (defined as children who do not qualify for “free or reduced lunch”) who attended full day kindergarten performed three points worse than children who did not attend full day kindergarten.
The changes in ability measured were miniscule, and based on second grade achievement. Nearly all studies conclude there is no measurable increase in academic performance once these children are in high school. The real impact of this incident is that the Clark County School District would trumpet partial and deceiving research results.