Wednesday, May 1, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Nevada's persistently poor public school funding may be putting the state at risk for a lawsuit.
At least that's what a host of education advocates in Las Vegas argue.
Advocates, upset with the incremental process of the Legislature when it comes to funding education adequately, plan to meet today to discuss a strategy in pursuing litigation against the state.
They plan to meet with the ACLU of Nevada and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund to discuss "what can and should be done," said Fernando Romero, parent of two children in the Clark County School District and president of Hispanics in Politics.
"I'm hoping to get information as to what our options are," he said. "We've been waiting for good things to happen, and good things are not happening, so we need to take more assertive measures."
The potential case centers around the state's poor graduation rates, its consistently low level of funding for English-language learners and inequities in educational outcomes for minority students.
ACLU representatives wouldn't discuss whether a lawsuit is imminent.
"The only thing I can confirm right now is that we're looking into this," said Tod Story, interim executive director of the ACLU of Nevada.
The threat of a lawsuit over education inadequacy isn't new, with advocates bringing up the threat about every two years and whole legal papers exploring the issue.
But Story said the situation has only deteriorated, pointing to the fact the state provides no funding in its formula for ELL students. He argued that has created new impetus to seek court intervention.
"What makes it potentially different this time around?" he said. "That'd be the place to start. You cannot continue providing zero dollars."
Gov. Brian Sandoval has proposed spending $29 million in ELL funding in his budget for the next two years. Democratic leaders have called for more, but have yet to propose a way for obtaining the revenue.
Organizers of the potential lawsuit say their hopes are dimming for legislative and executive-level action to dramatically increase education funding.
Nevada ranks third in states that have the most English-language learners, but Nevada's support for those students pales in comparison to the support afforded other ELL students around the country, according to a UNLV Lincy Institute study published earlier this year.
For example, Broward County in Florida provides $121 million in ELL funding for its 25,112 students, or $4,837 per student. In Clark County, $6.7 million in federal money is directed toward ELL programs for 55,818 students -- an average of $119 per student.
So the group is turning its attention to the state's judicial branch in hopes that the courts will declare the state's support for education inadequate under the state constitution and mandate the Legislature to adequately fund education in Nevada.
It's a tactic that advocates in other states have adopted. The ACLU of Southern California is suing California in what it alleges are inadequacies in the way that state funds its ELL system. Judges in Colorado recently ruled in favor of a group of advocates, saying that "the state's school finance system is unconstitutional because it is inadequate and not rationally related to the constitutional mandate of a thorough and uniform system of free public education," according to that state's attorney general's office.
Colorado has appealed that ruling.
In Nevada, both Sandoval, a Republican, and leaders in the Democratically controlled Senate and Assembly say that they're prioritizing more money for education programs. Sandoval has already earmarked additional new money the state received for full-day kindergarten and English-language learner programs.
Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, has been perhaps the most outspoken champion for more money to pay for ELL funding in this state.
He has vowed that he's not heading home from the Legislature without getting more money for education.
"If we don't do more for ELL, then definitely they have a really good case to sue the state for ELL funding," he said.
Following the recession years in which the state slashed education by hundreds of millions of dollars, the state is in a position to now add money back to its education system.
"Education has long been a priority for the governor and in his balanced budget, his commitment to K-12 education has increased spending, including an additional $160 million general fund investment, with a total new commitment to English-language learners and all-day (kindergarten) of nearly $60 million," said Mary-Sarah Kinner, spokeswoman for Sandoval. "What's more, because the economy is growing and local revenues are up, overall spending on K-12 education is up over $400 million from last biennium."
A 2006 study of Nevada's education system noted that adequate funding for Nevada's education system would be $4.46 billion in base funding for the next two years. The governor's executive budget includes about $3.8 billion in base funding.