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COMMENTARY: In Nevada, the public schools are not for sale

Toward the end of this month, caucusgoers will make a critical decision about the future of public education in Nevada and across this country. They will decide between an education system that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos wants to run according to the Walmart business model and a system driven by the needs of students, teachers and families in which high-quality public education is available to all.

In Nevada the stakes could not be higher. Today, Nevada ranks 44th out of 50 states in per-pupil funding, and the average salary of teachers is $7,500 below that of their peers in other states. Teachers are leaving the profession in droves, and students with special needs are not getting the attention they need.

This is not how we should be treating our country’s most vulnerable, and it is not how we should be treating our teachers who are doing the heroic work of educating our children.

Thankfully, teachers in Nevada and across the country are fighting back. This year, through strikes and negotiations, Nevada teachers and the Clark County Education Association won a 3 percent raise and future raises in their contract. I am proud that the CCEA has endorsed me for president and I believe that together we will solve the many problems plaguing our public education system.

Together, we will make sure that no child in Nevada goes hungry. Hundreds of thousands of Nevada school children are in need of school lunches. Instead of saddling families with debt and stigma, we will fund universal school meals — breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Together, we will make sure that teachers are paid a dignified starting salary of at least $60,000 a year and are given access to grant funds for out-of-pocket expenses. For Nevada’s teachers, this would represent a nearly 30 percent raise in starting salaries. It would also help reduce the state’s extreme teacher shortage.

Together, we will address the problem of overcrowded classrooms. Nevada ranks as one of the states with the highest student-per-teacher ratio in the nation. This burdens teachers and makes it difficult for kids to learn and get the attention they need to succeed.

Together, we will provide students with disabilities the resources they need for success. In Nevada, graduation rates among disabled students are far below the national average and trained teachers are in short supply. The disability rights platform I recently released addresses systemic problems of discrimination and underfunding for students with disabilities and for their overworked and underpaid teachers.

Instead of forcing teachers to “teach to the test,” we will respect their professional expertise in setting standards of student evaluation. We will not condition school funding on testing outcomes. In Nevada, the “high stakes” aspect of standardized tests means some underperforming schools will be converted into charters, which are less accountable. That is a perversion of what testing and evaluation is all about, and it is undermining public education.

Together, we will follow the NAACP’s lead in passing a moratorium on state and federal spending on new charter schools until they are made more accountable. Instead of spending hundreds of millions on a parallel school system that serves only a small portion of children, we should be investing in the public school system we already have. And to those who want to privatize that system, we say loud and clear: Our schools are not for sale.

I stand with Nevada’s teachers and families in demanding professional respect, fair wages and a quality education system that works for all. You are a critical part of the political revolution that is needed to transform our country. When we stand together, there is nothing we cannot accomplish.

Bernie Sanders represents Vermont in the U.S. Senate as is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

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