Report: Cost to make Nevada schools average in US tops $800M

March 5, 2021 GMT
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FILE - In this Jan. 13, 2021 file photo students reach out with their arms to practice social distancing while walking to their next class at Mater Academy East Campus in Las Vegas. A new report commissioned by the Legislature finds Nevada public schools have too many students per classroom and too few teachers and support staff. The study released Friday, March 5, 2021, to the Nevada Commission on School Funding projects the added cost of simply meeting the U.S. national student-to-teacher ratio average at about $800 million. (Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP,File)
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FILE - In this Jan. 13, 2021 file photo students reach out with their arms to practice social distancing while walking to their next class at Mater Academy East Campus in Las Vegas. A new report commissioned by the Legislature finds Nevada public schools have too many students per classroom and too few teachers and support staff. The study released Friday, March 5, 2021, to the Nevada Commission on School Funding projects the added cost of simply meeting the U.S. national student-to-teacher ratio average at about $800 million. (Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP,File)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Nevada public schools have too many students per classroom and too few teachers and support staff, according to a study released Friday that projects the added cost of meeting the national student-to-teacher ratio average at about $800 million.

The report also found that Black and Hispanic students are less likely to be taught by experienced educators than white or Asian children.

“We have so many schools where children will have the entire year without a licensed teacher,” said Lisa Morris-Hibbler, community services chief in Las Vegas and member of the Nevada Commission on School Funding, which received the report.

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It could cost $1.8 billion to catapult Nevada from near the bottom to the top of national rankings of student-teacher ratios, study director Nathan Trenholm said.

Commission member Dusty Casey, an executive with the Oasis Academy in Fallon, termed the staggering figure a “punch in the gut.”

But, “for better or worse we have a target number,” observed Commission Chairwoman Karlene McCormick-Lee, a former associate superintendent in the Las Vegas-based Clark County School District.

The report comes just weeks after Gov. Steve Sisolak proposed a state schools budget containing steep budget cuts due to state tax and revenue streams hobbled by the coronavirus pandemic.

School spending would average $3.5 billion per year over the next biennium. But the governor, a Democrat, has said he expects federal pandemic relief funds will help underwrite the state spending plan.

The report arrived while the state Legislature, led by Democrats, holds its every-two-years regular session. It stems from a state Senate mandate in 2019 to provide recommendations for improving education in a state that educationdata.org last year ranked 44th in spending.

It found that an additional $800 million would let Nevada add 9,800 teachers to its current 20,700 statewide workforce and get to the national average 15-to-1 student-teacher ratio.

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Funds would more than double the number of support staff including school counselors, nurses, psychologists and social workers, now at fewer than 2,000 statewide.

Some commission members said they weren’t sure teacher training and hiring pipelines could meet that demand.

Adding just 3,000 teachers to classrooms statewide would cost about $260 million, Trenholm said. That would lead to “conservative estimate” class size improvements in elementary grades and core secondary courses of English, math, science and history.

The 11-member commission also is tasked with identifying how money could be raised to meet spending needs, although member Guy Hobbs said it was “still working on identification of enhanced funding.” Hobbs is a principal with the governor’s wife, Kathy Ong Sisolak, in the influential Nevada financial consulting firm Hobbs, Ong & Associates.

More than 374,000 students in Nevada, or almost nine in 10 statewide, attended classes larger than recommended sizes in the 2019-2020 school year, said Trenholm, of Las Vegas-based Data Insight Partners.

Third-grade classes averaged 21.6 students per teacher, well above the recommended 15-to-1 ratio, and fifth-grade classes exceeded the recommended 25-to-1 ratio by an average of 2.6 students, the report said.

Commissioner Punam Mathur, a former casino, utility and charity executive, noted the study found improvement when state funds were directed toward 4th grade reading scores during the last decade. Nevada’s scores rose two years ago to 218 on a 0-500 scale, just below the national average of 219.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jhone Ebert, in a statement about the report, said it showed that student achievement improves when funding is provided.