Nevada law bars it from 'Race to the Top' education grants

The Obama administration is offering $5 billion in federal grants to spur innovation in education, but cash-strapped Nevada is likely to take a pass on the "Race to the Top" fund.

The president wants to do four things he considers to be reforms -- toughen academic standards, find better ways to recruit and keep effective teachers, track student performance and turn around failing schools.

The $5 billion fund was part of the economic stimulus law passed earlier this year. It is a fraction of the $100 billion that was included for schools, the bulk of which is being used to fill increasingly larger budget holes, and not for the innovations Barack Obama wants.

But Nevada is precluded from applying because of a state law that does not allow student achievement data, such as test scores, to be used in evaluating teacher performance, said Gloria Dopf, deputy superintendent of instruction for the Nevada Department of Education.

"It's a shame," she said.

Nevada would have to rewrite the law by December to become competitive in the grant-application process, Dopf said. The other hope is that the White House would change its mind about the state's teacher evaluation law. California and New York have the same rule.

"We're not unique in this," Dopf said.

The law is intended to protect teachers from student performance data that's taken out of context, Dopf said. It's a recognition that their students come with varying abilities and different circumstances.

In the last legislative session, state Sen. Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, attempted to overhaul the state's education law and allow teachers to be evaluated on the performance of their school as a whole.

Had it passed, he said the reform would have satisfied the Obama administration.

"You can't allow bad teachers to stand in the way of students' success," Horsford said Friday.

He wants to revisit the law during the next legislative session in 2011. He does not think the money offered at the federal level is significant enough to call for a special session. It's unknown how much Nevada might be in line to receive were it to qualify for the funds.

In the Clark County School District, teachers at empowerment schools, or schools with autonomous management, can earn merit pay based on their schools' overall performance, said John Jasonek, executive director of the Clark County Education Association.

"We've been very progressive on this," he said.

But the union opposes rewarding teachers individually because competition between teachers would become too divisive, he said.

Competitive pay "tears schools up," Jasonek said. "The children suffer."

The nation cannot succeed in the 21st century unless it does a much better job of educating its children, Obama said Friday.

"In a world where countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow, the future belongs to the nation that best educates its people, period," Obama said. "We know this. But we also know that today, our education system is falling short."

Already, seven states -- Tennessee, Rhode Island, Indiana, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Colorado and Illinois -- have lifted restrictions on charter schools so they can compete for the money.

"Not every state will win, and not every school district will be happy with the results," the president said.

There is broad agreement about Obama's assessment. Only about one-third of U.S. students could read and do math at current grade levels on national tests in 2007, the most recent year for which data is available. And the high school dropout rate is dismal: one in four students.

Contact reporter James Haug at or 702-374-7917. The Associated Press contributed to this report.