As the 2017 Nevada legislative session was coming to a close, Ruben Murillo was nervous.
Murillo, president of the Nevada State Education Association, was hearing rumors that lawmakers were negotiating a compromise in the defining battle of the session — the fight over Gov. Brian Sandoval’s $60 million Education Savings Accounts proposal.
As the union representing 40,000 public school teachers and support staff members, the NSEA had a great deal to lose. ESAs, created in the 2015 Legislature but put on hold by a court order last year, were designed to provide state funding for parents to pull their kids out of public school and send them to private institutions.
To Murillo and other defenders of K-12 schools, any dollar devoted to ESAs was a dollar siphoned away from the state’s struggling public schools. And if lawmakers could funnel $60 million into ESAs, termed vouchers by opponents, what would stop them from trying to pump more money into them?
“Vouchers are a dam bursting,” Murillo said. “If you were to open up the floodgates on the general fund to be able to take eventually $100 million, $200 million out to fund a voucher program that had no limits to it, I liken it to a dam breaking. And you can’t control that water.”
But as Murillo sat down for an interview days after the conclusion of the session, he could smile. Lawmakers defeated ESAs during a dramatic endgame in which Republican support for the funding fell apart. The sequence of events left GOP legislators facing a dire circumstance: to hold out for ESAs, they would have been forced to reject a budget calling for beneficial construction projects like a veterans nursing home and buildings on college campuses.
Sandoval could have vetoed the final budget, which did not include funding for ESAs, but doing so would have risked a government shutdown. He chose instead to approve the budget, which included $20 million in Opportunity Scholarships to help students from low-income families, and walk away.
In the interview, Murillo walked through the session’s final days and outlined the NSEA’s upcoming priorities. Here are excerpts of the conversation:
On a scale of one to 10, how strong of a session was this for public education?
I think it was about a nine. Compared to 2015 there were a lot of positive, progressive, pro-public education measures passed.
We start out with the defeat of the voucher program — the ESAs. At the beginning of the session, the governor was saying no ESA money, no budget. And at the end, there was no diversion of public money to fund vouchers.
Going into the session, to be honest with you we were afraid we might have to compromise, and that we might end up with something we didn’t like at the end of the session when everything is bartered.
But we were on the ground way before the legislative session started, working with our progressive partners, working with our labor partners to make sure we were on the same track. We ended up engaging more members than we ever have. In May, we sent out 53,000 text messages to our members all across the state. They were engaged; they wanted to know what was going on. We gave them an opportunity to participate and have an impact, not only in the voucher legislation but in other legislation that was coming up.
This legislative team was by far our best in many, many years. We were cohesive, we were in the building at all times and we built relationships that helped us gain in the end, when it came to final days when we didn't know what was going to happen.
So we were preparing for the battle (on ESAs), but all of a sudden the implosion happened. I think a lot of the groundwork we laid helped lead to this point where the Republicans were not sure what they were going to do and started making these quick, reactive moves that kind of painted them into a corner.
Gov. Sandoval kind of said that himself. He took the ESA fight as far as he could, and then had to determine whether it was worth $60 million to shut down the state government. And we have to thank the governor for going that different path.
What were you hearing about the compromise on ESAs?
We heard the bargaining was kind of regressive — that instead of going from two points and meeting in the middle, it was kind of like the governor was saying, ‘We want additional monies, and we want guarantees.’ At one point, the governor had indicated that he wanted the ESAs or even the Opportunity Scholarships for 10, 15 years down the road to guarantee it wasn't just a one-time event. So instead of going for $15 million or $30 million over the biennium, it was like let's go for $100 million-plus. What they wanted to do was use Opportunity Scholarships as a vehicle if they couldn't get vouchers. So where the governor ended up with an additional $20 million over the biennium, and then with a sunset clause, totally blew me away. Based on what they were bargaining previously and where they ended up — $10 million a year — was a huge, huge victory.
How do you feel about Opportunity Scholarships?
Not crazy about them. They were (approved) in the 2015 legislative session; that wasn't anything enacted this year. But the alternative to Opportunity Scholarships was the opening of the floodgates to public education from the general fund (via ESAs).
When you said Republicans painted themselves into a corner, what steps did they take to get there?
I wasn't privy to conversations; I'm just observing as to what happened. On that Wednesday night when things started imploding — when the capital improvement funds were voted down — for us that was like, wow, what did they just do? They're going to say no to a veterans hospital in Sparks? They're going to sacrifice an engineering school at UNR and then one in Las Vegas? They're going to shut down the government at the end of June when the fiscal year ended? Is that really what they just did? That set the stage for what happened at the end. I could just imagine the political ads: "Don't vote for this senator because they voted against veterans; they're anti-veterans, they're anti-student, they're anti-Nevada."
What does it say about the state’s leadership that the situation ended like it did?
The governor really did the right thing in saying, "I'm not going to sacrifice the state for $60 million." You really have to give kudos to our coalition partners — Battle Born Progress, Educate Nevada Now, ACLU, For Our Future — and our labor partners, Culinary Union, SEIU Nevada. But when you get to the Legislature, you have to give thanks to the Democrats — who were hard-nosed, especially in the Assembly. The Assembly Democrats were really steadfast against vouchers in any form. So when it came to our compromise, we were thankful they were able to see this was the best way out as opposed to creating a permanent fund to fund vouchers out of the general fund.
Are you afraid this entrenches the ESA supporters event further?
I think what we have to take a look at from opposite sides of the issue is what can we do together to improve public schools in Nevada? We all know our public schools need a lot of innovation, they need a lot of attention and that takes two groups to work together. We can't work to create two parallel education systems; that's not going to work. We need to work in terms of identifying the key areas where we can work together for the betterment of our students.
Moving beyond the ESAs, what were some of the other high points for public schools?
Assembly Bill 434 provided incentives for teachers to teach in Title 1 schools. That in itself sent a huge message to the Trump/(Education Secretary Betsy) DeVos advocates for the privatization of our public schools. No. 1, our Legislature said we're not going to increase or enlarge vouchers, and at the same time we're going to invest in our Title 1 schools. That's totally opposite of what the federal government is trying to do under the DeVos private education voucher scheme. They'd love to take the money that is going to Title 1 schools now, make it into vouchers and give it to kids so they could go somewhere else.
The other thing was that the weighted funding formula was discussed, and an additional $76 million was diverted to that. We know there's a lot more money that needs to go into a weighted funding formula, but that was a good start.
We also defeated SB430, which would have addressed achievement school districts. We were opposed to it because we saw it as a way to ingrain different components that were anti-public schools. We feel that in the next session we can address achievement school districts. They're proven to be a failure nationwide — whether in Tennessee, in Boston, in New Orleans, they have not show any results. We believe we can find a better solution.
We also had a really good discussion on teacher evaluations. Unfortunately, the percentage of teachers' evaluation based on student performance remains at 40 percent. We wanted that to go down to 20, but the Nevada Department of Education kept it at 40 percent. Our original bill draft was zero percent. A lot of our teachers support zero percent, because we can't control what happens in the private lives of our students. So at the next legislative session, our goal will be to address that 40 percent and make sure that standardized tests are kept out of that equation.
How do you respond to criticism that eliminating testing from the evaluations is an attempt to avoid accountability?
The evaluation process is still there, whether it's 40 percent, 20 percent or zero percent. Teachers are not afraid of accountability; we just want fair accountability standards. We want to be evaluated on student growth, on how much they learn, not just a snapshot of where they're at. If they have a bad day when they take the test — you know, we have a lot of students with testing anxiety. There have to be alternative ways to measure a student's progress as opposed to just standardized tests. So we're opposed to the standardized tests, but we're not opposed to accountability.
You gave the session good rating, but why not a 10?
In a perfect world, we would have had a full weighted funding formula and we would have expanded Victory and Zoom schools. We would have enough money so our special education students, our ELL (English language learner) students and our gifted students would have the programs they need to succeed.
Given that the Clark County Education Association didn't join the NSEA in taking a hard stance on Education Savings Accounts, how's your relationship with the CCEA coming out of the session?
NSEA and CCEA share common ground in our vision of a quality public education for all Nevada students. CCEA members are NSEA members, and our members were overwhelmingly in opposition to private school vouchers. Thousands of educators across the state, including CCEA members, emailed and called legislators during the session to help kill ESA voucher funding. NSEA and CCEA leadership differ in our strategic approach to the legislative session. While CCEA thought a deal on vouchers was inevitable, NSEA followed our principles. We had an ongoing presence at the Legislature, where our relationships with legislators and labor and progressive partners made the difference in our success.
What will you be working on between now and the 2019 session?
A lot of money is being invested in recruiting teachers to come to at-risk schools whether they're outside of the district or inside. But we have to be able to reward our veteran teachers who aren't new to the district or new to the schools, and have sacrificed years to be in our inner-city schools because they love being there. They're being slighted for their commitment by not being rewarded like other teachers are. We’re recruiting new teachers to come to these schools and are bringing in teachers who are already in the district, and we’re giving them bonuses. Well, if I'd committed 10 years or even five years of working for at one of those schools without any extra incentives, I’d be asking, ‘What about me?’
What would you say to critics who might claim those staff members contributed to the poor performance of the schools?
I'd say those staff members who've stayed through the good and the bad are soldiers who should be recognized for the hard work they've done to keep those schools from sliding any further. You cannot blame teachers and staff for the downgrading of a school if they don't have the resources, the materials, the support of the central office or the administration. We work with the tools that we have, and we make the best of it. We buy our own materials in those schools. So you can't blame the teachers and support staff for what's wrong with those schools. You should be giving them gold medals for the heroic efforts they make to make those schools work.
How do you see the 2018 elections turning out, and what challenges will emerge?
I think the main race we'll have to take a look out is the governor's race. I think pretty much everybody's conceded that it's going to be Adam Laxalt. But even though some people seem to be saying, 'Oh, Laxalt's got it,' I think that if politics in Washington continues on its current course, it's going to have some kind of influence in Nevada — especially as we continue to become more blue.
Are you hearing of any potential Democratic challengers for Laxalt?
I'm not going to speculate on who it could be. But what I can tell you is that NSEA will be backing a pro-public education candidate. There will be no ifs, ands or buts.
Does that mean Laxalt doesn't get the endorsement?
All of our candidates, regardless of party affiliation, will be given an opportunity to interview with us. We send every candidate a questionnaire and we invite them to come before our boards for an interview. Whether they accept it is up to them. Those who do come in for an interview, our state board of directors will interview them and they'll be given an opportunity to present their case — including Adam Laxalt, should he choose to come.