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VICTOR JOECKS: Why more money for education won’t change anything

If you’re excited that Nevada lawmakers will spend more money on education, you should ask yourself a simple question: Why?

Legislators from both parties could hardly contain themselves after adding $500 million recently to the state’s education budget. “I’ve been waiting a damn long time to put this amount of money into education,” Assembly Ways and Means Committee Chair Maggie Carlton said.

“It’s not every day that you get to do something that would be significantly impactful for students, said Ben Kieckhefer, a Republican, “but I do think today is one of those days.”

Why?

That’s not a rhetorical question. In many circumstances, there’s a clear connection between spending more and improved quality. If your dinner budget goes from $10 to $20, you can go to a different restaurant. If your car budget increases by $2,000, you’ll have more options available. Even spending $1 more on a tube of toothpaste will increase your choices.

That’s because in most areas of life there are multiple companies providing goods and services. The competition helps control costs and boost quality. A company that provides an inferior product at a higher price will soon go out of business.

But the opposite is true with Nevada’s traditional public schools. Overall, they’ve done a terrible job for decades, notwithstanding heroic efforts by individual teachers and the pockets of quality schools. While such a track record would be fatal for a private business that must compete for customers, it’s business as usual for a pseudo-monopoly. The education establishment uses its own failure as proof that it needs more funding.

What Nevada students really need are more options. Charter and private schools provide an escape for some kids, but the vast majority of Nevada students receive a traditional public school education.

Unfortunately, Nevada legislators aren’t offering more options with these additional funds. They’re pouring them into a broken system. So what happens to the money once it reaches the school district?

It might be one thing if district officials were able to spend that money as they see fit. Perhaps they’d institute some changes, such as extending the school day at low-performing schools. But first, the district has to negotiate contracts with its employee unions.

The Clark County Education Association runs the Teachers Health Trust. It’s been bleeding money for years. The district recently prepaid three months’ worth of health insurance premiums to help the trust pay its bills.

It’s likely the union’s top priority in contract negotiations will be to increase health insurance contributions. After that, it will probably demand higher pay for existing employees. Expect similar demands from the district’s other employee unions.

The district can’t just say no. If the district and a union can’t reach an agreement, the dispute goes to an unelected, unaccountable arbitrator. The first thing the arbitrator looks at under state law is the district’s “ability” to pay.

Giving school districts more unrestricted dollars will result in paying the same people more to do the same thing. No wonder spending more doesn’t produce better results.

In two years, the cycle will repeat itself thanks to the collective amnesia of the main characters. The education establishment will claim its failures are due to a lack of money. Legislators will pretend this is the first time anyone has ever thought to increase education spending. Unions will siphon most of the unrestricted dollars away during contract negotiations.

You can confirm this pattern with a quick Google search. In 2015, the Legislature approved a $1.3 billion tax hike package, primarily to increase education funding. Carlton called that “historic.” Last session, Gov. Steve Sisolak bragged about signing “the largest public education budget in Nevada state history.” And yet, here we are again — pretending that spending more will change things.

Until more of the public realizes what’s happening and demands more choices for students, this pattern will repeat itself ad infinitum.

Victor Joecks’ column appears in the Opinion section each Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Contact him at vjoecks@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4698. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.

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