The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation was recently the topic of an editorial on these pages. I found the editorial to be misleading, and as a member of the conference committee appointed to work out differences between the House and Senate versions in Congress, I feel compelled to respond.
NCLB is about accountability. It is about providing parents with as much information about schools’ performances as possible so they can make the best decisions in regard to their children’s education. NCLB is about preparing children to succeed in higher levels of education and in their later lives. For too long, our education system has been obsessed with maintaining a failing status quo, apologizing for dismal levels of learning, throwing money at the problem with no real plan, and trapping young students in failing schools that are part of a failing system. Every child in every classroom throughout Nevada and across the country deserves better. So do their parents. That is what NCLB represents.
The editorial printed recently here condemns President Bush and Congress for not adequately funding NCLB and decries the tax dollars required for the program’s phase-in in Clark County. But here, the editorial misses a crucial point often ignored by its critics: NCLB contains specific provisions, which I helped craft during the conference on the bill, prohibiting any unfunded mandates on the states. If the law calls for testing but doesn’t provide the funding for that testing, the testing does not have to be implemented.
In addition, I worked during the conference to ensure that funding formulas used in NCLB utilized the most recent population data available. Because of this change and the increased amounts of money given to education programs from the federal government, Nevada has seen historic increases in federal funding for our schools. This, too, is part of my commitment to provide the resources necessary to improve educational opportunities for Nevada’s children.
The editorial refers to “unforgiving mandates” on children who are limited English proficient (LEP). The legislation does contain stringent requirements on these children –requirements I believe represent a fair and balanced approach. Each LEP student has three years to learn English before being required to take the test solely in English. This testing is essential to learning what these children can do so that we can push our education system to give them the education they deserve. We cannot allow these children to continue to be without the benefits of English proficiency.
Critics of NCLB, like the author of the recent editorial, love to claim that LEP students are not going to get the funding they need to succeed. This notion is false. NCLB contains a whole separate title in the legislation in regard to LEP children. Each state receives a grant from the federal government to assist with these costs. Last year Nevada received $3.67 million in funding for this program.
No Child Left Behind is an opportunity to usher in a new era of accountability in our education system. Parents are finally empowered with the tools to guarantee that their children are not left behind. Yes, it shakes up the status quo in education and challenges our children and our schools to soar to new heights. In my view, business as usual does not make the grade when it comes to our children and their education.
“Facts,” said Mark Twain, “are stubborn. Statistics are more pliable.” There is no question my legislative colleague’s recent article in the Nevada Business Journal titled, “These Are a Few of My Favorite Statistics”, relied on the flexibility of statistics rather than the rigidity of facts. As elected officials, it is our duty to provide government’s service to the citizens as efficiently and effectively as possible. Statistics are just a tool. Statistics don’t live in Nevada, people do.
The Tax Foundation, says my colleague, ranks Nevada as the 13th-highest taxed state. Rankings were based on five factors, including corporate income tax, individual income tax, sales and gross receipts tax, fiscal balance and tax-base conformity. Based on those factors, Nevada ranks third overall for states with a favorable business tax climate, with Nevada being an elite state without a corporate income tax and no personal income tax. We can bury ourselves in The Tax Foundation’s work or we can ask our friends and neighbors what is happening to them.
The fact is, Nevada is a great place to do business. Taxes are necessary in every state, and no one would do business in a state that did not have any. Hundreds of companies come to Nevada every month. Thousands more choose to stay in Nevada every day. Policymakers are trying to provide services to a population that is in jeopardy of outstripping its infrastructure, while trying to improve a sagging social fabric and educational system. The Tax Foundation provides a useful tool to understand Nevada juxtaposed to other states. Using that tool to help Nevadan’s balance the demand for government’s service with a workable tax system is the challenge facing elected officials. Using that tool as an instrument of demagoguery is failing our constituents.
Nevada ranks third-lowest as a percentage of citizens living below the poverty standard. That is a statistic of which Nevada can be proud. We have progressed further than most states in wresting our citizens from the clutches of poverty. The Federal poverty threshold, however, should not be our goal – in 2003, a family of four is considered in poverty if total annual household income is below $14,480. While that statistic is a good measuring tool, most Nevadans will tell you $14,480 per year for a family of four barely affords the ability to buy adequate health insurance, quality childcare, healthy meals, sufficient housing and utilities. Finding Nevada ranked lower among other states in citizens living below the poverty line shouldn’t be a reason for elected officials to stop paying attention to the social fabric of our state’s safety net; it should be the beginning of a discussion as to how Nevadans, working full-time, should be able to afford life’s necessities. Many working people and many of our senior citizens would agree they may not be as destitute as the federal poverty guideline, but they still struggle mightily with the basics of life.
Nevada ranks 51st in poverty spending. This statistic says we may have fewer people living in poverty than other states, so it would follow we would spend less per thousand on those in poverty. Again, a good comparison statistic that helps us understand where we are as a state and gives us an understanding of other statistics upon which we rely to make decisions. But in reality, let’s try to understand where these tax dollars go. Medicaid makes up a substantial portion of this expenditure. Long-term care for our seniors is a part of that. Aid to families, or “Kinship Care”, is part of the equation. Help for working families displaced from the economic downturn in the aftermath of Sept. 11 is a part of the expenditure.
An elected official is faced with choices. When someone is poor and sick, we can’t say, “We rank third-lowest in poverty spending,” and they are cured. They need healthcare. When there is a prescription drug available that may cost a fraction of what the clinical treatment might, we can’t say, “Our Medicaid benefit is 30 percent more than California,” and make the treatment magically cheaper. It is responsible to take a long-range view and keep the costs as low as possible without shifting the burdens of care onto emergency rooms or private providers.
When presented with the choice of a child ending up homeless, in foster care, in the juvenile justice system or in the care of a family member who has been awarded guardianship, most reasonable decisionmakers choose the latter. In fact, my colleague who criticized the program in the Nevada Business Journal was the same one who not only voted for the program, but also seconded the motion in the committee to pass it. Again, a statistic will not provide for a child in need.
When special circumstances present themselves, as they did on Sept. 11, 2001, elected officials must react decisively. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but during that time, telling the thousands of people who all of a sudden had to file unemployment and claim Nevada’s welfare benefit that this state was not flexible enough for them was unacceptable. Hurting Nevada families was unacceptable. Working with programs like Project Helping Hand was the right thing to do, and it yielded Nevada $68 million in federal aid for our citizens. There is no statistic that is going to tell me that was the wrong thing to do.
If there is a program that is not necessary, cut it. If there is a program that can be run more efficiently, help make it better. If there are people who need help, help them. The truth is that a majority of Nevada’s decisionmakers, including Governor Kenny Guinn, have done their best to provide government’s services to the people at a reasonable cost. A large majority of elected officials and interest groups felt that way. But because of Nevada’s two-third’s requirement, a small minority of people have become demagogues, using statistics to dictate policy rather than as a tool to help them understand policy.
Before we draw conclusions about our state of affairs, talk to our schoolteachers, our seniors and our poor. Visit the welfare offices and the medical offices treating Medicaid patients. My guess is you will find programs that run well, but can always use improvement. You will find hard-working people. You will find a state that is trying to do the best it can for its citizens, but always trying to improve. I don’t know the statistic that measures that.