Nevada Democrats look to repeal charter school initiative; GOP vows fight

CARSON CITY — Democratic state lawmakers have requested a bill draft to repeal the controversial Achievement School District legislation passed by Republicans in 2015.

State Sen. Mo Denis, a Las Vegas Democrat who will serve as chairman of the Senate Education Committee in the session that starts Feb. 6, questioned whether the program to put underperforming schools under the control of a charter is necessary.

“We are doing a lot with education to make things better, and at this point I don’t know if it is needed,” he said. “It might be premature.”

The bill draft has been requested by the Senate Education Committee.

Arguably the most significant — and controversial — effort to improve student performance in Clark County is the reorganization of the school district. The school board late last month filed a lawsuit in state District Court in Carson City to permanently block some elements of the overhaul.

With so many moving parts to the education reform effort, including the reorganization, Denis said lawmakers may want to step back on the achievement district concept.

The achievement measure was a centerpiece of GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval’s public education overhaul from 2015.

But Denis said it has encountered opposition from parents, who don’t have a say in the decision to convert to a charter school. Assembly Bill 448 implementing the program passed on a party-line vote with Republicans in support.

Sandoval said Tuesday he has not reviewed the proposed legislation and will wait to see what, if any version, comes to his desk.

“However, to repeal a measure aimed at providing students in persistently struggling public schools with the opportunity to attain a quality education, before it can be fully implemented, seems ill-advised,” said his spokeswoman, Mari St. Martin.

Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, called the proposal and others like it from Democrats “dead on arrival.”

“For far too long, Nevada was ranked last in the nation in education,” he said in a statement. “Republicans enacted strong reforms that have been recognized nationally and will start moving our education system in the right direction. The Democrats want to take us backwards, and we will be standing united against that way of thinking.”

Five Clark County schools are in the running to partner with charter operators as part of the new program after a state Board of Education vote last month. The remaining schools are Cambeiro Elementary, Craig Elementary, Orr Middle School, Fitzgerald Elementary and Kelly Elementary.

Representatives from the schools, including principals, parents and staff, spoke before the state board, pleading to spare them from the achievement district.

A State Department of Education spokesman declined to comment, noting that no language has been provided with the bill draft request. But Achievement School District Superintendent Jana Wilcox-Lavin said her office is actively working to implement the law as the Legislature intended.

Achievement staff hosted a public hearing on the law’s regulations last month, making changes to elevate parental involvement in the state’s lowest-performing schools, she said.

Wilcox-Lavin said those changes would borrow some language from a bill authored by state Sen. Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas, which allowed parents to restructure underperforming schools.

The Clark County School District, which has actively fought against the legislation, said in a statement that it’s concerned about the lack of proper research to support the premise that a charter-school conversion will actually improve educational performance.

“There are also concerns with the selection process, the lack of requirement for charter management companies to have a history of success in turning schools around, maintenance of property which conflicts with NRS 393.010, and other practical implications to CCSD and operations of the selected schools,” the statement reads.

A final decision on which schools will be part of the program is due by Feb. 1. The chosen campuses will cease to operate as traditional public schools at the end of the 2016-17 academic year and will become charters at the start of 2017-18.

Regulations that would have made changes to the program have not been approved by lawmakers because of opposition by Democrats. But the state Department of Education is moving forward with implementing the law as approved in 2015 by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Democrats control both the Senate and Assembly, and could pass a bill repealing the program with a simple majority vote, although Sandoval could veto such a bill. It would take a two-thirds vote of both houses to override a veto. Democrats do not have a super majority in either house.

Review-Journal staff writer Amelia Pak-Harvey contributed to this story. Contact Sean Whaley at swhaley@reviewjournal.com or 775-461-3820. Follow @seanw801 on Twitter.