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Education underlined in budget

Darian DeGuzman pulls at his tie and adjusts the knot, putting the finishing touch on an ensemble his family couldn’t afford.

Jobs for America’s Graduates, the same program supporting the Desert Pines High School senior as he works toward graduation, bought the outfit that will soon come in handy for job interviews. On Wednesday, he wore it to his induction into a pilot program being watched by law­makers across the state.

As the legislative session begins today , lawmakers will consider whether to grant Gov. Brian Sandoval’s request to spend $135 million more on K-12 education programs – including JAG – over the next two years in an attempt to boost Nevada students’ low performance.

The attention is only beginning for DeGuzman and the 22 other students whose success in the governor’s pilot program could affect whether JAG – a school-based program promising jobs to struggling students after they graduate – is expanded to 2,000 more students at 50 high schools at a cost of $1.5 million, as Sandoval would like for a start.

But JAG expansion is one of the smaller changes to public schools among dozens requested in the governor’s budget and sought in bills this session, which insiders predict will be friendly to education.

“You’re going to find bipartisan support – more so than in the past – for education reforms and spending,” said state Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas. He said education is the “No. 1 issue” for many legislators on both sides of the aisle.

State Deputy Superintendent of Instruction, Research and Evaluative Services Rorie Fitzpatrick saw that support last week from both the Assembly and Senate at pre-session budget hearings.

It was evident in endorsements for the governor’s requests for JAG, $20 million to expand all-day kindergarten to 46 more at-risk schools from the current 114, and $14 million to help preschool through third-grade students become English-proficient.

“If that’s an indicator, it looks promising,” Fitzpatrick said.

Regardless of what lawmakers want to do, decisions will boil down to one thing, noted Assemblyman Randy Kirner, R-Reno, a member of the Assembly’s education committee. “What can we afford?”

Kirner praised the governor’s initiative to have students reading by third grade, calling it a milestone in a child’s education. “Learn to read by three; then read to learn after three.”

Planning for passage of the $14 million for English-language learners, Nevada Superintendent of Public Instruction Jim Guthrie told the State Board of Education Jan. 25 that the department would be “prepared to roll those funds out to districts very quickly.”

The Clark County School District would be the main beneficiary. It has 50,000 English-language learners.

The district, which serves 70 percent of the state’s student enrollment of more than 440,000, also stands to benefit if legislators change the 45-year-old formula that determines state funding for Nevada’s 18 districts, including charter schools.

“Here’s where it gets messy,” Guthrie said.

The proposed formula would give more per-student funding to the poor, to English-language learners and to other student groups that cost more to educate. Guthrie predicted that Democrats will favor the weighted system.

Again, Clark County has large populations of these student groups and would likely receive millions more from the state. But other districts would suffer funding cuts unless the state softens the blow by allocating more dollars to education.

Currently, Clark County receives just over $5,000 per student from the state, while sparsely populated Esmeralda County gets more than $17,000, which some officials have called an inequity.

Joyce Haldeman, associate superintendent and lobbyist for the Clark County School District, didn’t expect the formula to be discussed until 2015, when more money is anticipated to be available to soften the blow on rural districts throughout Nevada.

But, based on her conversations with legislators, there appears to be an appetite now, she told the Clark County School Board Jan. 28.

“This will be a wild ride,” she said of the session.

Anticipating fervor for a new formula, Guthrie said the Nevada Department of Education will start building a system for distributing money to districts. That way, it will have the framework in place should the Legislature adopt a new funding formula.

But the formula isn’t the only education-related issue facing Nevada educators and decision-makers.

If just a fraction of the other education-centered bills pass this session, the state department and districts will tackle:

■ Establishing more laws barring sex between teachers and students.

■ Replacing proficiency exam requirements for a high school diploma.

■ Giving parents authority to fire school principals and staff members.

■ Reimbursing teachers for buying school supplies.

■ Establishing a statewide teacher-evaluation system.

The list goes on and on.

“We have some pretty hefty issues to address in education,” Kirner said.

And it all boils down to helping students such as DeGuzman graduate.

“Everyone is in agreement,” Roberson said. “We need to improve education in the state.”

Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at
tmilliard@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279.

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