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Legislators question fairness of Gibbons’ education plan

CARSON CITY — Legislators picked apart Gov. Jim Gibbons’ education reform plan today, inducing an administration staffer to admit the plan still must be fleshed out.

Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio repeatedly questioned Gibbons’ deputy chief of staff, Stacy Woodbury, on whether the governor’s proposal would lead to funding inequities between school districts and result in federal lawsuits challenging its fairness.

Raggio said federal courts have tossed out funding formulas for schools in other states, but the Nevada Plan has remained intact for 40 years.

The state provides slightly more than $5,000 a year per student. Poorer districts receive slightly more than richer ones.

“You say you would take money for class-size reduction and full-day kindergarten and roll it back in basic support,” said Raggio, R-Reno. “How do you allocate that increase in basic support and meet the (federal) fairness requirement?”

Woodbury responded by saying that Gibbons’ plan still must be fleshed out.

“Do we have specific details on how we will do that? No,” Woodbury said.

But she said the governor and legislators could work out the details over the next few months and “come up with something that works” that could be approved in a special legislative session.

When pressed by legislators, Woodbury said the “hole” in the state budget will not be $70 million as earlier projected, but as much as $450 million.

To balance the state budget, she said the governor has no choice but to make cuts to education that are in proportion to the cuts in other state agencies.

In response, Raggio said the law allows the governor to make cuts to education that are equivalent to cuts to other state agencies without convening a special session of the Legislature.

He said that makes more sense than convening a special session with an education agenda that has no chance of passing.

The exchanges came during a meeting of the Legislature’s Interim Committee on Education.

The meeting offered legislators and members of the public their first opportunity in an official setting to discuss the eight-point education reform plan announced by Gibbons last week.

Every speaker from the Parent Teacher Association to a group of Spanish-speaking parents expressed opposition to at least parts of his plan.

Gibbons wants to convene the Legislature in a special session to eliminate the requirement for mandatory funding of full-day kindergarten and class-size reduction programs, hand out vouchers to allow students to attend private schools, end collective bargaining, and replace the elected state Board of Education with a five-member board appointed by him and the Legislature.

In announcing the program, Gibbons said it would save between $30 million and $100 million a year.

In a Tuesday interview, the governor said he was not advocating eliminating full-day kindergarten or class-size reduction programs, but the requirement that the programs be funded.

He said funds for these programs would be available to school districts that want them.

“Money is not always the answer,” Woodbury told members of the Education Committee.

“Class-size reduction has had 20 years to work. We have yet to see definitive long-term improvements. The time for action is now. There is no better time than a special session when the legislators can focus on this issue.”

Woodbury said Nevada students still received low scores on tests, and 23 percent of the state’s schools have been rated by the federal government as needing improvement.

“No one can say education has improved,” she said.

Assemblywoman April Mastroluca, D-Henderson, questioned how Nevada’s school funding formula would pass a federal court fairness test if one school district had class-size reduction programs and another did not.

“That would create an inequity,” Mastroluca said.

“I guess that is possible,” Woodbury replied.

But Woodbury said the governor’s proposal would not lead to layoffs of 2,000 teachers as predicted by the Nevada State Education Association, although some teachers would lose their jobs.

Joyce Haldeman, an associate superintendant of the Clark County School District, accused Woodbury of using only half of the statements made by Superintendent Walt Rulffes in a story in today’s Review-Journal.

Woodbury quoted from the story comments in which Rulffes said, “Budget cuts, while they are difficult, they are not all bad and they can have somewhat of a cleansing effect on the system.”

But in the same story, Rulffes said he did not want cuts.

Haldeman emphasized school district officials do not want the class-size reduction program to end.

The district has sought a waiver from the class-size reduction goals of a 16-to-1 pupil-teacher ratio in grades one and two, and a 19-to-1 ratio in grade three.

But Haldeman said the district sought the waiver not because it opposes class-reduction, but because the state did not provide enough money to achieve those goals.

Nevada provides $110 million to the school district for class-size reduction, and the school district supplements it with another $15.5 million, according to Haldeman.

Nonetheless, class sizes in the early grades still operate at a 17-to-1 ratio.

According to Haldeman, pupils in the first three grades have shown improvement in test scores because of class-size reduction, even though far more pupils today are English language learners or come from poverty backgrounds than 20 years ago.

Michael Rodriguez, a school district spokesman, said Tuesday that 1,649 teachers in Clark County would lose their jobs if class-size reduction programs ended.

In anticipation of the program continuing, Rodriguez said county schools are being constructed with smaller first- through third-grade classrooms.

 

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

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