Another stab at school reform

The Assembly faces a litmus test that will determine whether viable and practical education reform will ever have a chance to become law in Nevada.

During hearings Saturday in Carson City, the Assembly Ways and Means Committee was regaled with prophecies of quantum leaps and death spirals resulting from the same bill — Gov. Brian Sandoval’s Assembly Bill 555 would cut the underpinnings from some of the education bureaucracy’s power base.

AB555 eliminates tenure by dictating that all teachers should be contracted for one year only, with no presumed right to re-employment from year to year, making it easier to get rid of poorly performing teachers quickly. This is in marked contrast to a bill pushed by Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, that would require tenured teachers who get unsatisfactory evaluations two years in a row to be given an additional probationary period, meaning poor teachers could be locked into their jobs, by law, for up to four years.

Joyce Haldeman of the Clark County School District complained a one-year contract hurts the ability of the district to “nurture teachers.”

Another section of Gov. Sandoval’s bill strikes at the entrenched union seniority pecking order when it becomes necessary to lay off teachers and administrators. Currently the Clark County school contract requires teachers and administrators to be laid off on a basis of last in, first out. AB555 requires districts to “base the decision to lay off a teacher on the effectiveness of that teacher to improve the academic achievement of pupils and on the evaluations of the teacher … “

Because newer teachers are the lowest-paid, layoffs on a seniority basis tend to mean more teachers must be laid off to meet budget cut needs, leading to larger class sizes.

On the other hand, some senior teachers fear this evaluation method of layoffs will make them targets of budget cutters. “This face is the one you are going to see when I get laid off because I cost too much,” testified Petrina McCarty-Puhl, the 2006 Nevada Teacher of the Year.

Still another aspect of the bill targets a point highlighted by education reform advocates such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates and former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. They say studies have found no correlation between advanced college degrees and student performance, so why pay more for a teacher with an advanced degree? Thus, the bill prohibits districts from increasing wages based solely upon years of experience or advanced degrees.

The bill further requires at least 50 percent of a teacher’s or administrator’s evaluation be based on pupil progress.

Dale Erquiaga, senior policy adviser to Gov. Sandoval, testified, “Educators are best protected by the quality of their work . … We protect the people who are doing the work and show results and we hold others accountable.”

AB555 is but one of six education reform bills put forth by the governor — many mirroring successful reforms carried out in Florida under Gov. Jeb Bush — but it is a keystone to building an arch of educational improvement.

If this bill fails or is amended into an unrecognizable abomination, we will then know the teacher unions own the Assembly — mind, body and soul. Watch to see how your Assembly representative votes and remember it when he or she is up for “re-employment,” because 50 percent of their evaluation should be based on the progress of education reform.

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