CARSON CITY – Democratic legislative leaders called Wednesday for expanding the number of public schools with full-day kindergarten, limiting class sizes and increasing preschool learning opportunities for 3- and 4-year-olds.
“These are proven programs that will make education better and build a better Nevada,” said Senate Majority Leader Mo Dennis, D-Las Vegas, during a news conference at a Las Vegas school.
Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, called it a “travesty” that Nevada ranks last in the nation with only 29 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds receiving early childhood education opportunities.
But the two offered no figures on what expanding those programs would cost.
In response to questions, Denis said that during the legislative session, which starts Feb. 4, they will look at the costs and determine how much is available for them to expand early childhood education programs. They could make partial advances now and expand the programs later when the economy recovers.
“It all depends on where we end up,” Denis said. “We will look at the revenue side and how to pay for it.”
Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval has gone on record that he will oppose any attempts to increase taxes, other than extending $620 million in sales and business taxes that otherwise would expire July 1.
Sandoval said Tuesday that he opposes a Nevada State Education Association petition to impose a 2 percent business margins tax, which would produce about $800 million a year for education.
That proposal could go before the Legislature this year if the Nevada Supreme Court decides the petition’s language sufficiently advised residents of its effects. More than 152,000 registered voters signed the petition last year.
Democrats control both the Assembly and Senate, but they are four votes shy of a two-thirds majority needed to pass laws over a governor’s veto.
Sandoval issued a statement that he was “encouraged” by the Democrats’ initiatives, although he continues to oppose new taxes.
“He has consistently voiced his support for early education as a foundation for student success,” said press aide Mary-Sarah Kinner about the governor. “Education continues to be one of the governor’s highest priorities, and he looks forward to discussing the issue with Nevadans in next week’s State of the State address.”
Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, said the Democrats’ plans are “worthy goals” but pointed out they did not say how they would pay for the improvements.
Roberson said he could not support tax increases at a time when the economy is still in a recession and businesses need every dollar to expand and create jobs.
He said 150,000 people are unemployed in Nevada, and if they were working, then revenue would be available to expand education programs.
The state spends $3.3 million a year on early childhood education and $24 million a year on providing full-day kindergarten at 128 schools in lower economic neighborhoods.
And the state pays about $140 million a year for the class-size education program that is supposed to limit enrollment to 16 students to one teacher in first and second grades and 19-to-1 in third grade.
Because of financial problems, however, most schools have received waivers to avoid the requirement. Democrats want to fund the first three grades at an 18-to-1 ratio.
Assembly Majority Leader William Horne, D-Las Vegas, also said legislators want to end “social promotion,” advancing students to their next grade level though they don’t meet learning requirements, after students finish the third grade. Sandoval sought the same thing in 2011.
Denis held out hope that Republicans will back at least some of the Democrats’ education plans.
But Victor Joecks, a spokesman for the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank based in Las Vegas, said studies show only temporary and minimal academic gains for students who receive early childhood education and full-day kindergarten.
Instead of spending more money on such program, Joecks said Nevada should join 21 states and allow students to attend schools of their choice.
Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-687-3901