Nevada Democrats Offer Merit Pay Plan

Published July 1, 2006

Democratic political leaders in Nevada seized the reins of the state’s education debate in mid-April with a bold proposal to change how teachers are paid.

On April 18, the Nevada Democratic Party introduced a plan to combine $2,000 across-the-board teacher salary increases with pay incentives for individual teachers and schools that raise students’ test scores.

“We will invest in our children and our teachers while we hold everyone in the education system accountable,” said Nevada Democratic Party spokeswoman Kirsten Searer. “We will expect measurable results to prove that Nevadans’ hard-earned dollars are being put to good use and our students are truly prepared for today’s work world.”

Assembly Majority Leader Barbara Buckley (D-Las Vegas) and Assembly Education Committee chairwoman Bonnie Parnell (D-Carson City) are among the legislative leaders who consulted with various educators and community leaders to craft the proposal.

Twofold Proposal

Figures released by the American Federation of Teachers in October 2005 show Nevada’s average teacher salary for 2003-04 ranked 22nd in the nation at $43,211 a year. Nevada also is one of only 22 states in which average salaries did not lose ground to inflation the previous year.

Searer said proposed across-the-board pay increases are justified by many Nevada teachers’ inability to afford housing, especially in the state’s high-growth areas. Also, an April 2006 report from the Higher Education Project of the state’s Public Interest Research Group, a liberal advocacy organization, showed one-third of Nevada teachers who graduated from a four-year public institution and one-half of their private college counterparts carry “student debt exceeding manageable levels.”

The innovation in the Democrats’ compensation package is the differentiation of rewards for teachers based on student achievement. If enacted, “performance plus pay” would be implemented in the 2007-08 school year.

“We believe that every teacher has the opportunity to change a child’s life,” Searer said. “Teachers who demonstrate excellence in their classroom deserve more.”

Skepticism Among Reformers

Steven Miller, director of policy research for the Nevada Policy Research Institute, has doubts about the Democrats’ proposal. He said voter rejection of a well-financed, union-backed 2004 tax increase initiative, known as National Average Funding, has caused some political leaders and entrenched interest groups to assume the mantle of reform in order to kill real change.

“When a reform achieves momentum, they embrace the issue by name and get more money for it,” Miller said. “Then they quietly kill it.”

Miller said the current plan gives little assurance of genuine policy improvement.

Rationales for Spending Hikes

Searer said during the next few months state Democrat leaders will continue to meet with parents, teachers, and other interested groups–including the Nevada State Education Association (NSEA), a teachers’ union–“to come up with benchmarks and work out details of future legislation.” NSEA officials were not available for comment.

Nevada Democrats seem to have absorbed the voters’ rejection of the union-backed 2004 tax increase initiative and have searched for alternatives that increase education spending without openly increasing taxes for it.

“Throwing money at the problem will not fix it,” Searer said. “But we have no choice but to acknowledge that this problem creates a hardship every day in Nevada’s classrooms.”

About 80 percent of Nevada’s eighth graders failed to achieve proficiency in math, reading, and science on the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The state’s math and reading NAEP test scores all rank in the bottom 10 in the nation. An August 2005 report by the nonprofit research firm WestEd said Nevada ranked 47th in high school graduation and college enrollment rates.

Disputes Over Numbers

Searer cited data released by the United States Census Bureau in April 2006 that shows Nevada ranks 46th in current education spending, at $6,399 per pupil.

However, Miller noted the number excludes Nevada’s “capital investment costs, which are among the highest in the nation.” The Silver State compares much more closely to the national average in spending when money invested in building construction and improvements is counted.

The need for more school facilities in Nevada has been prompted by fast population growth. The number of teachers and students in the state both increased by about 60 percent from 1993-94 to 2003-04. During that time the student-teacher ratio rose slightly from 18.7 to 19.0, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Even so, Searer said, Clark County School District (CCSD), the fifth-largest in the nation, anticipates a shortage of 1,000 teachers for the 2006-07 school year. She said the Democrats’ plan will help to attract more new instructors.

Huge Bureaucracy

State Sen. Bob Beers (R-Las Vegas) said the most important step Nevada could take to improve education would be to split the “mammoth” CCSD into several dozen smaller districts.

“With 300,000 students, 240 administrators who are not assigned to a school site, and more administrative buildings than most districts have high schools,” Beers said, “it stifles teacher enthusiasm, discourages parent involvement, and performs lower than most school districts in the nation.”

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.

For more information …

The American Federation of Teachers’ Survey and Analysis of Teacher Trends 2004 is available online at

The April 2006 publication of the State Public Interest Research Groups’ Higher Education Project, Paying Back, Not Giving Back: Student Debt’s Negative Impact on Public Service Career Opportunities

State profiles of test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress

WestEd’s August 2005 report, Student Achievement and Graduation Rates in Nevada: Urgent Need for Faster Improvement,

The United States Census Bureau’s Public Elementary-Secondary Education Finance Data,

Data on student-teacher ratios are available through the National Center for Education Statistics’ Common Core of Data,