Education weighs heavily on minds of Nevada lawmakers

Establishing more laws barring sex between teachers and students.

Eliminating the proficiency exam requirements for a high school diploma.

Allowing parents to fire school principals and staff members.

Education seems to be on the minds of state lawmakers this year. More than 60 bill draft requests – suggesting such measures – are being prepared for the legislative session, which starts in February.

Some seem to be bipartisan slam dunks, such as closing a loophole in Nevada law that came to light in September when Henderson police arrested two teachers for having sex with a 16-year-old student.

One of the teachers, John Stalmach of Dailey Elementary School, admitted to sex with the student from Basic High School, according to a Henderson police report. But the wheels of justice have been slow to turn.

State law says a teacher, administrator, coach or volunteer is prohibited from having sex with a student "enrolled in or attending the school at which the person is employed or volunteering." Stalmach met the student while previously teaching at Brown Junior High School, but he wasn’t her teacher at Basic or in a position of authority over her when the acts in question occurred, according to Clark County School District officials. Attorneys contend Stalmach can’t be convicted under the state law.

A bill requested by Assemblyman Jason Frierson, D-Las Vegas, would make it a crime for school workers to have sex with former students, as would another bill from Assemblywoman Marilyn Dondero Loop, D-Las Vegas.

"I haven’t heard any push-back," Frierson said of his draft bill, which would amend the original 1997 law. "I can’t imagine the Legislature intended to allow this kind of thing."

Other changes would create major shifts in power, such as two bills similar to the California "parent trigger" law. The California law enables parents to fire a principal or staff members, or shut down a low-performing school if half the parents at the school agree to it. More than 20 states have considered such legislation, and seven states have passed a version of it.

In Nevada, the two bills advocating more parent control are being requested by two senators and an assemblyman.

Assemblyman Ira Hansen, R-Sparks, is one of the backers and sat on the Legislative Committee on Education last session. That is when he realized parent involvement is key to changing the course of education in this struggling state, he said.

"It’s difficult to get them involved unless we give them some leverage," he said. "It’s really unfair that so many schools are failing students, but they’re locked in."

Parental involvement is key, but Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, is unsure whether the measures in the bills are the way to get it, he said. He was a member of the education committee and was Nevada PTA president in 2009.

Another major change – replacing high school proficiency exams – has a chance though, Denis said.

All Nevada students must pass a proficiency exam in math, science, writing and reading to graduate from high school, but many students have to take the tests multiple times. Some never pass, even after five tries, and can’t graduate.

"Those discussions are already being had" in the Nevada Department of Education, said Denis, where Superintendent of Public Schools James Guthrie has been critical of the proficiency exams.

Guthrie advocated abolishing the proficiency exams during a speech to the Nevada Association of School Boards last week, contending the tests aren’t aligned with the curriculum.

Denis heard from one parent who moved a child to St. George, Utah, for the last semester of her senior year just so she could graduate. Utah doesn’t have proficiency exams as a condition for earning a diploma. For that reason, surrounding states are also putting the pressure on Nevada to change the system, Denis said.

The bill calls for using final exams at the end of every high school course in math, English and science in place of the proficiency exam, said sponsor Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, D-Las Vegas.

"The proficiency exam is incredibly difficult for some kids because it is not what we are teaching them." Flores said. "I want to replace it with end-of-course examinations on the material they have been taught."

Her bill probably would require students to take either the ACT or SAT but wouldn’t hold them back because of low scores, she said. Instead, the ACT/SAT scores earned by juniors would be used to place them in the best courses their senior year, making sure they’re ready for college.

"The purpose is not to make graduation easier," she said.

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