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Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval stands in the way of Democratic efforts to roll back education reforms

CARSON CITY — One of the mysteries of the 2017 session is why majority Democrats are introducing bills that would eliminate, roll back or modify some of the education reforms passed in 2015, when Republicans were in charge.

Yes, Democrats disagree with some initiatives and believe they weaken public schools.

But Gov. Sandoval — who pushed for those reforms — still wields the power of the veto. And even though Democrats control both houses, they don’t have enough members to override Sandoval’s veto.

Not only that, Sandoval says he told Democratic leaders that he won’t water down his 2015 education agenda.

“I am not going to support any efforts to roll back any of the education reforms of 2015,” Sandoval said Thursday. “Why would we dilute what I felt was historic improvements to K-12 education?”

It’s a good question. Why spend time and energy on bills you know, or have good reason to know, will likely meet the governor’s veto?

It hasn’t stopped Democrats from spurning state Sen. Scott Hammond’s bill to fix the Education Savings Account program, which the state Supreme Court found unconstitutional last year because the program drew funds from the public schools budget. Hammond’s reform would fix that constitutional flaw, and allow the program to proceed. (ESAs allow parents to use the state’s per-pupil funding money to defray education expenses including tutoring, books and tuition at private schools.)

Majority Democrats have said they will not hear Hammond’s bill, but allowed that they are open to hearing an identical bill proposed by Sandoval himself.

“ESAs are very important to me,” the governor said. “I’m going to push very hard on it. It’s in the budget, and it’s going to stay in the budget.”

Then there’s the Achievement School District, which aims to convert a handful of failing public schools into charter schools. There are at least two bills to eliminate the Achievement School District entirely, and another to delay its implementation. Even though the original legislation allows no more than six public schools to convert to the achievement model, and there are only two such schools currently, the idea has drawn staunch opposition from Democrats.

And on Wednesday, the Assembly Education Committee heard testimony on a bill that would change the Read By Three program, which currently calls for students who can’t demonstrate reading proficiency by third grade to be held back for an additional year.

Education experts testified that the most important part of the bill was intensive reading instruction for kids who are in danger of not meeting the standard, and that retention in third grade wasn’t an effective long-term strategy. (In fact, they said it could lead to higher incidents of kids dropping out of school later on.) Instead, in an amendment, they suggested a student could be held back at the discretion of the school and the parents.

But why not keep the intensive reading training and the blanket hold-back policy? Especially since, as state Superintendent of Public Instruction Steve Canavero noted at the hearing, the penalty part of the law hasn’t even gone into effect?

Sandoval said the accountability built into his education reforms was a key part of the package that included extra money for programs aimed at curing specific problems faced by Nevada students.

“That was part of the deal on the part of Republicans who voted for the commerce tax,” said Sandoval, referring to the state’s first business revenue levy that underwrites education reform. The governor and majority Republicans were harshly criticized from the right for that tax, but Sandoval says he still stands behind it.

“I have no regrets. And I think the data is backing that up,” he says. “Our state’s better and stronger for it.”

That doesn’t sound like a man who’s willing to abandon the veto.

Contact Steve Sebelius at SSebelius@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5276. Follow SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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