In a signing ceremony at Wynn Elementary School, Gov. Jim Gibbons on Wednesday approved legislation intended to remove a barrier that kept Nevada from competing for up to $175 million in federal grants for public education called Race to the Top.
The legislation lifts a state restriction on using student performance data for the evaluation of public school teachers. The ban prevented the state from competing in the first round of Race to the Top funds, but Nevada education officials think the state now will be eligible for a second round of funding this spring.
During the ceremony at the southwest valley school, the governor also approved legislation giving school districts flexibility in adjusting class sizes in first, second and third grades and in using state funds allocated for textbooks for other purposes.
The new laws might be seen as small consolation. In the recent special session in which lawmakers approved the changes, they passed a 6.9 percent rollback in state education funding that reduced the Clark County School District's operating budget by $77.5 million. But Clark County School Board President Terri Janison wasn't complaining Wednesday.
"You know, everything will help. The timing is what concerns me," said Janison, who explained that September was the soonest the district could expect to receive Race to the Top money.
The district must make some difficult budget decisions before July 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year, because of the state funding reductions and a shortfall in anticipated property tax revenues.
"So that's really difficult for us," Janison said. "(But) we'll take it whenever it comes."
The federal grants are not supposed to replace state funds that were cut, said Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas.
"They have to be for special, new initiatives," she said. "What Race to the Top is really encouraging is looking at new, innovative ways to increase student achievement, ways to get highly qualified teachers into the schools that need them. So they have very specific goals. The funding has to follow those goals."
Buckley is hoping that state budget cuts of $117 million to Nevada school districts won't hurt its Race to the Top application.
"I think it will be something the federal government will look at," she said. "We hope they will also look at the fact that our state was the hardest hit in the nation by the recession, by the fact we moved heaven and earth to reduce the cuts to education. We hope that will be considered as well."
Buckley and Gibbons had sparred over how to word the law dropping the state ban on student performance data in evaluating teacher performance.
In removing the restriction, the Legislature inserted new wording that student test score information "must be considered, but must not be used as the sole criterion, in evaluating the performance of, or taking disciplinary action against an individual teacher, paraprofessional or other employee."
Gibbons said Wednesday that the language was not ideal. Daniel Burns, the governor's spokesman, said that it was not a strong enough repeal and is another example of legislators bowing to the interests of the Nevada State Education Association, an umbrella organization for state teachers' unions.
State Superintendant for Public Instruction Keith Rheault said the "wording is fine."
Rheault is confident Nevada and all states eventually will be awarded grants. President Barack Obama has set aside $4 billion for the Race to the Top program and announced his intention to continue the program in 2011.
Rheault said the education empowerment programs sought by Gibbons and Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, would be ideal for a Race to the Top grant. Under the programs, individual school principals and teachers would be given leeway in determining how students would be taught in their schools.
Plans were approved in 2009 to expand the empowerment program but were put aside because of the state's financial problems.
Carson City Bureau Chief Ed Vogel contributed to this story. Contact reporter James Haug at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-374-7917.