TV ads air conflicting opinions on education reform, funding

If the sound for these TV commercials was turned off, speakers’ frustration would still be apparent from their frowning faces.

In one ad, teachers are unhappy about a seniority system that does not necessarily protect the best classroom instructors during layoffs.

In another, elementary schoolchildren want to know why Gov. Brian Sandoval is "destroying" their schools by withholding funding.

Education reformers and teachers unions are in a battle for public opinion.

They are flooding the airwaves while the Legislature debates public school funding and reform bills that could affect how school districts reduce their work force.

Both ads purport to be in the best interest of children, but the political views of the education reformers and unions could not be further apart.

An ad by Students First, a nonprofit advocacy group founded by Michelle Rhee, a former chancellor of public schools in Washington, D.C., supports legislation that could affect collective bargaining.

This detail is left out of the commercial as its narrator simply claims, "Under Nevada law, if there are layoffs, the newest teachers are the first to go."

The reality is not so simple.

Aside from laws upholding contracts, there is no law specifically mandating that newer teachers be the first fired, according to a Clark County School District official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to get in the middle of a political dispute.

But in practice, that’s the way it usually works under the contract with the Clark County Education Association.

Nevada law does make layoff procedures subject to collective bargaining. So there is room for nuance.

There is also much variation between school districts and even within the different job categories of the Clark County School District on how layoffs are to be conducted, the district official noted.

Some unions are ahead of the curve. The Clark County Association of School Administrators and Professional-Technical Employees has agreed to new procedures so that employees with negative work evaluations would be the first to be let go, said Stephen Augspurger, the executive director of the administrators’ union.

Mafara Hobson, a spokeswoman for Students First, said the organization’s intent is to make sure schools keep their best teachers.

"No one wants to see teacher layoffs," Hobson said. "In a time when states are having massive teacher layoffs, it’s just inevitable that some states will lay off teachers. If states lay off teachers, the best way to do it is based on performance rather than seniority.

"When layoffs are done based on seniority, kids tend to lose some of their best teachers," she added.

Gary Peck, executive director of the Nevada State Education Association, which represents teachers unions, called the Students First ad "classic misdirection."

"Instead of spending all this time and money on how to fire educators, we should be concentrating on how to raise enough revenue to adequately fund education in our state," Peck said.

Peck does not like that "Students First seems to presume that seniority rules and quality education are contradictory when in fact they typically go hand in hand."

Peck said the teachers association has started a campaign, Better Future for Nevada, to move the public conversation in a different direction.

In the association’s television ad, elementary school age children state that "we could save education if big business paid a little more."

Jeremy Aguero of Applied Analysis, which researches economic and public issues, said it is "not one thing that is going to solve our education problem. It’s many things. It’s everyone’s responsibility.

"To be honest, most taxes are going to be passed down to consumers anyway," Aguero said. "Big business needs to be part of the solution but it’s common sense that reforms also need to be part of the solution. You can’t look at one piece of the picture or one piece of the puzzle. You’re just not going to solve the problem that way."

He understands that TV ads have their limitations since it is difficult to "make a meaningful statement about it what it’s going to take to reform education in Nevada in a 30-second spot."

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