CARSON CITY — Momentum is growing to hold a special session of the state Legislature in coming weeks if only to change a law on teacher evaluations and make Nevada eligible for as much as $175 million in federal education grants.
U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Nevada State Education Association President Lynn Warne on Wednesday joined the bandwagon of people urging Gov. Jim Gibbons to include the grant item on the agenda if he calls the Legislature into session, a step seen as likely because state tax revenues have fallen about $60 million below budget projections.
Both said the Legislature needs to act to change the law before Jan. 19 so Nevada will become eligible for the grant. Warne said school districts already have been forced to make cuts and the receipt of federal funds could prevent additional reductions.
Tom Brede, an aide to Reid, said the senator was not demanding Gibbons convene a special session, only that if he does, he should put the change on the agenda.
Gibbons said what they are asking is what he wants to do. He said he has been saying for weeks that he would recommend that legislators repeal a law that prevents Nevada from qualifying for the grant.
"I intend to propose the repeal of this law and hope our families and educators will put Nevada children first and support this change," said Gibbons, sounding as if a special session were inevitable.
He added that Reid apparently was not aware of "what’s going on here," but that he was glad the Senate majority leader was "jumping on the bandwagon."
Earlier this week, Gibbons did not say whether he would call the Legislature into a special session, or when that could happen. He only announced he would talk with legislators this month and in January before deciding whether to call them back to Carson City to deal with the revenue shortfall.
Daniel Burns, Gibbons’ communications director, said the governor might ask the state Economic Forum to meet soon and develop new estimates of tax revenue the state can expect to receive over the next year and a half. Such meetings sometimes have been precursors to past special sessions.
The Economic Forum, made of five business leaders, estimates what the state will receive in revenue. The governor and Legislature must use its estimates in formulating the state budget.
In a letter to Gibbons, Reid urged the governor to include on the agenda of any special session an item to make Nevada eligible for as much as a $175 million Race to the Top federal challenge grant for education.
Under a state law approved without a hearing in 2003, Nevada is not eligible for the grants because it is one of four states that prevent student achievement data from being used in teacher evaluations.
Reid stated in a news release that this law could be changed in time to meet a Jan. 19 deadline to apply for the grant if the governor includes it on the agenda of a special session.
"It is in our state’s interest to act as soon as possible to ensure that Nevada is able to apply," Reid said.
Warne said her organization, which sought the 2003 law, has been developing language to amend the law and make Nevada eligible for the grant.
"Absolutely we support putting this on the special session," she said. "It would bring needed money to the state and school district coffers."
While the teachers association originally opposed tying student achievement to teacher evaluations, Warne said Nevada can qualify for the grants if legislators make teacher evaluations subject to collective bargaining by school districts.
She said there is no guarantee that if the law is changed, Nevada will receive the grants from the U.S. Department of Education. She also said it would take as much as 500 hours of staff time by the state Department of Education to prepare the application.
In calling on Gibbons to call a special session this month, Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert, R-Reno, said the state likely would receive no more than $30 million from a federal grant.
"We have to get moving forward on it now," Gansert said.
But Assemblywoman Bonnie Parnell, D-Carson City, said she would first want to check with the federal government to make sure any law changes proposed by the teachers association would make Nevada eligible for the grant.
"I would hate to pass something that was not enough for us to qualify," added Parnell, chairwoman of the Education Committee.
The Race to the Top grant program incudes provisions that are "federal intrusions" in the state’s overseeing of public education, such as telling state colleges how to operate education departments, Parnell said.
Such concerns need to be vetted during a special session, she said.
The $4.35 billion Race to the Top grants are part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus package. Funds are expected to be awarded to about 15 states in two phases, beginning in the first half of 2010.
Contact reporter Ed Vogel at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-687-3901.RACE TO THE TOP FUND
According to the Web site of the grant program, states must:
• Adopt standards that prepare students to succeed in college and in the workplace.
• Build data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve education.
• Make teacher and principal pay, and the schools where they work, dependent on student test scores.
• Reduce legal caps on the number of charter schools that can open each year.
• Recruit, develop, reward and retain effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most.
• Turn around the lowest-achieving schools.
For more information on the Race for the Top Fund, go to the U.S. Department of Education Web site.