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Bernie Sanders Wins Nevada: How Las Vegas Teachers Helped the Candidate Score His Biggest 2020 Victory Yet

By Kevin Mahnken | February 19, 2020

Alex Wong/Getty Images

February 24 Update: On Saturday, Bernie Sanders scored a sizable victory in the Nevada caucuses. Though state Democrats were still tallying votes early Monday, the most recent reporting had the Vermont senator receiving roughly 47 percent of all county convention delegates — more than twice as many as second-place finisher Joe Biden. Turnout far exceeded that of the 2016 caucuses, and may ultimately approach the 2008 record of 120,000 votes.

Few were expecting it when, in January, Bernie Sanders scored one of the early coups of the Democratic presidential primary: The Clark County Education Association, representing nearly 20,000 educators in schools around Las Vegas, gave the Vermont senator their endorsement.

The move made national news for two reasons. The first is the prominence of Nevada’s presidential caucuses, which take place on February 22 and will set the hierarchy of Democratic contenders heading into Super Tuesday. The support of CCEA could prove indispensable in a state where unions are a political superpower unto themselves, and if Sanders rides their organizing power to victory, he will have the inside track to winning the party’s nomination.

But the union’s decision to state a preference was noteworthy in itself. Unlike the last Democratic primary, when the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers preemptively threw their support behind Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, the two national behemoths have kept their guns quiet in the crowded 2020 contest. So have influential locals like the Chicago Teachers Union, which has chosen to remain on the sidelines even after forceful lobbying from both Sanders and Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren.

But CCEA has gone its own way in recent years, surprising onlookers in the process. In doing so, it has been perhaps the dominant player in Nevada education politics over the past few years — to the point that one local scribe has referred to union president John Vellardita as the “de facto governor.”

In 2018, the group’s work for then-candidate Steve Sisolak helped make him Nevada’s actual governor, handing Democrats unified control over state government for the first time in a generation. The party delivered a series of progressive education victories in the year that followed, including a revamped school funding formula, a teacher pay increase and new restrictions on school choice policies favored by Republicans.

And although the state legislature is closed until 2021, CCEA is still flexing, even as it brings them into conflict with political allies. The same week it endorsed Sanders, Vellardita announced that the union would pursue a pair of ballot initiatives to raise more than $1.3 billion in new funding for public schools through a 1.5 percent sales tax increase and a 3 percent tax increase on monthly gaming revenues over $250,000. The governor has repeatedly insisted that he wants to avoid using tax increases to boost education funding.

In an interview with The 74, Vellardita noted simply that his union backed candidates and policies that would advance its goals.

“We know how to win because we understand the political dynamics of this state,” he said. “We know that they’re not fixed, that they’re fluid at times, and we always position ourselves in a way that allows us to influence outcomes.”

Bradley Marianno, a professor of education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said that while the proposed tax hikes looked unlikely, CCEA had succeeded in making its message heard.

“I have a hard time seeing [legislators] voting for a gaming tax and then a sales tax increase that would raise the sales tax in some places … to some of the highest rates in the nation,” he said. “I don’t see that happening, and I’m not sure the teachers unions think it’s going to get done either. What they’re saying here is, ‘We need new sources of revenue, and we’re going to force your hand in finding those.’”

UNLV law professor Sylvia Lazos told The 74 that even as it backed Sanders in the upcoming caucuses, the union would be willing to take on local Democrats and Republicans alike to achieve its goals.

“[The funding fight] is going to be an eyeball-to-eyeball situation,” she said. “The CCEA doesn’t play nice with other people in the sandbox, and they’re not the gentlest political players.”

The year that was

Lazos, a local commentator on education and race, said the 2019 legislative session had seen Nevada make important strides in education funding — but left many stakeholders with a bad taste in their mouths.

“We had a very productive year, and at the same time, everybody is unhappy,” she observed. “The teachers are unhappy because the raise was modest, and it took a huge amount of capital for them to get it. Parents continue to be unhappy because we’re the 47th-ranked system in the country, and they’re seeing their kids’ class sizes increase. Administrators have had to spend a lot of time putting out fires instead of putting in place the systemwide changes that might improve schools.”

While assessments vary, rankings published by education groups like the Annie E. Casey Foundation have consistently placed Nevada schools near the bottom nationally, even as a steady population influx from neighboring California has made the Clark County School District one of the fastest-growing in the country. Classrooms are packed, and scores on college admissions tests like the ACT show achievement that lags far behind the rest of the country.

Nevada’s ratio of 22 enrolled K-12 students per instructor is the highest in the nation, and public testimonials from teachers sometimes warn of safety issues: One crowdfunded to give her 42 fifth-graders access to more than a handful of broken laptops. In an eighth-grade science classroom, students jostled for counter space during lab experiments and were forced to share worn-out safety goggles. Clark County schools alone will require more than $10 billion in maintenance funding through 2025 to address cracked drain lines and busted water heaters, of which only $4 billion is currently allocated.

“We simply have not invested enough in education for the last 15, 20 years, and we’ve continued to be a high-growth state,” said Lazos.

Underwhelming performance has provided some urgency behind efforts to improve the state school system. Under previous governor Brian Sandoval, Republican legislators passed a package of reforms including universal education savings accounts and a state-administered turnaround district to manage schools on the brink of closure.

The reforms — particularly those that would have channeled taxpayer dollars to private school tuition — were planted in rocky soil from the beginning; a court fight prevented the savings accounts from ever taking effect, and the 2018 elections, which swept Sisolak into office as the first Democratic governor since 1999, served effectively as a death knell for the program.

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The most critical changes to education passed only in June, on the last day of the legislature’s biennial session, when lawmakers voted to overhaul the state’s 52-year-old school funding formula. Dubbed the Nevada Plan, the existing scheme had long been criticized for directing insufficient resources to schools serving large populations of special needs students and English language learners.

Kenneth Retzl serves as education policy director for the Kenny Guinn Center for Policy Priorities, a local nonpartisan think tank. He said that although the move to adopt a weighted funding formula was long in the making, it disappointed some activists by not including new revenues for public schools.

“There’s been a sort of long buildup to revamping the Nevada Plan,” Retzl said. “This session, the idea was, ‘Hey, let’s fix the funding formula.’ But there were also a lot of education advocates who wanted more money for education, and you didn’t actually see a whole lot of new money. That’s why you’re seeing the CCEA backing these tax initiatives.”

While other progressive goals were accomplished — including the pay bump for teachers and a new law forcing charter schools to be more transparent about their student demographics — the victories were seen by many, including the CCEA, as insufficient.

“We’re essentially taking the same pot of money and distributing it differently, which needed to be done,” said Marianno. “But Gov. Sisolak, who promised that he wouldn’t raise taxes during the legislative session, held to that promise — which meant there was no new money coming into education.”

Paying off a debt

Las Vegas educators have been nothing if not willing to fight for their priorities.

The group voted to split from its parent affiliate, the Nevada State Education Association, in 2018, taking roughly half its statewide membership out the door after a lengthy financial dispute.

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The split grew later that year, as the two organizations backed opposing Democratic candidates in Nevada’s gubernatorial primary. While the statewide union endorsed Chris Giunchigliani, an avowed progressive and a former CCEA president, CCEA itself backed Sisolak, a far more moderate candidate. Their opposition to their own former leader extended to funding television ads during the primary accusing Giunchigliani of being soft on sexual predators.

The group’s pugilistic approach featured prominently in negotiations last year over school funding in Las Vegas. Even after the state acted to raise their pay, Vellardita led the union in threatening to strike at the beginning of the 2019-20 school year if its additional demands around future raises and professional development funding weren’t met. The two sides narrowly avoided a walkout this August.

Prospects for success are much hazier for this year’s bid to force referendums on tax increases. Sales taxes in Clark County are already over 8 percent, and the proposed hike for further education funding could impose a significant pinch on the working-class families that make the Strip run.

Vellardita noted that CCEA was “done with incremental progress” and that the work of adequately funding local schools was only beginning.

“We’ve got to do something at the scale of need, and that is over $1 billion each year,” he said. “We’ve made it clear that we’re not necessarily wed to these initiative petitions — i.e., the revenue streams that we’ve identified — but absent anyone else leading, this is the direction we’re moving in. We’d love to see elected [officials] leading, and we’d love to see alternatives being proposed that meet the challenges that our school systems face.”

Lazos called the idea of lifting the sales tax “mind-boggling,” adding that CCEA likely couldn’t count on Sisolak’s support.

“My view is that the governor has paid off his political debt, and that’s partially why they’re going alone with these ballot initiatives,” she said. “What they’re really doing is forcing a conversation about more revenue and not waiting for the governor to be ready to have that conversation.”

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Marianno, whose research has focused on how unions build political coalitions among elected officials, said that CCEA’s tactics reflect a shrewd form of pragmatism. Little links their 2018 endorsement of the comparatively moderate Sisolak with their 2020 support of progressive iconoclast Sanders — except that in both instances, the union sees their interests most likely being served by lumping in with the front-runner.

“It has something to do with official stances on policy, but it’s more about getting someone in the office who could be an ally in helping their policy positions forward. So what might appear to be two incongruous endorsements, between Gov. Sisolak and Bernie Sanders, might in fact just be them strategically making sure they are putting their weight behind someone who could win the nomination and move forward in supporting their favored policies.”

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