School reform bites the dust: Legislature embraces education status quo

For all the focus on education during the 2013 Legislature, for all the platitudes about the importance of transforming and improving our schools, Nevada’s K-12 system is essentially unchanged for the next two school years. Lawmakers could have done much better.

Gov. Brian Sandoval’s budget includes roll-up costs for enrollment growth, full-day kindergarten at more schools, reduced kindergarten class sizes and new funding for English Language Learner programs — about $500 million in new money for the 2013-15 biennium.

But more money, by itself, will never be enough to produce large achievement gains. There must be major education reform as well, and the Legislature delivered almost none.

One of Gov. Sandoval’s highest education priorities, ending social promotion, died for the second consecutive session. For too long, Nevada schools have moved forward children who can’t read, setting them up to fall further behind every year. Assembly Bill 161 would have required students to pass a reading test to advance past the third grade.

Lawmakers also killed Gov. Sandoval’s Educational Choice Scholarship legislation, a baby step toward school vouchers. Senate Bill 445 would have allowed businesses to claim a payroll tax credit in exchange for providing private-school scholarships for lower-income families. If the poor can’t escape substandard schools, what hope do they have of receiving a superior education?

Support for Teach for America didn’t make the cut, either. Gov. Sandoval wanted to give the nonprofit $2 million over two years to train highly motivated college graduates from majors other than education to teach in low-income schools. Such schools have high faculty turnover, because educators get no financial reward for staying at troubled schools. They’d rather teach where parents appreciate them and are more involved in the classroom. Senate Bill 517 passed the Senate 20-1 but was killed by Assembly Democrats. The $2 million was instead diverted to Millennium Scholarships.

The most significant education reform passed by the Legislature wasn’t a good one: Assembly Bill 288 gets rid of the Nevada High School Proficiency Exam for the Class of 2016 and those following. Students must pass the test to get a diploma, and most of the questions cover eighth-grade material. Yet many thousands of students fail the exam after multiple attempts despite having passing grades and their required credits. The exam is a test of the state’s entire education system, not just individual students. It might be the best accountability measure in public education. It gives a high school diploma some value — and if Gov. Sandoval signs AB288, it will be gone in favor of four course exams aligned with the new Common Core curriculum.

It’s not enough to increase school budgets. Spending more on the status quo won’t improve struggling schools. Lawmakers have to encourage competition and improve accountability. If we really value education, we’ll try to rethink schools, not just spend more money on them.