Las Vegas Sun

April 17, 2014

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Education:

Stimulus money isn’t coming easy

Nevada is among states struggling to satisfy conditions for funding

Nevada isn’t the only state struggling with how to qualify for hundreds of millions of federal stimulus dollars for education.

“It’s so much, so fast that people are feeling overwhelmed,” said Amy Wilkins, vice president for government affairs and communications at the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “My big concern is that people not feel so overwhelmed that they don’t grab this opportunity with both hands.”

At issue for Nevada: To receive $325 million in “state stabilization funds,” which must be used for education, the state must show that education funding at least meets 2006 levels, or that the percentage going to schools won’t change over the next two years.

For the purposes of the stimulus program, K-12 and higher ed are being treated as one entity, even though they are funded separately. Officials say the threshold will be met for K-12, but the higher education budget is posing difficulties. If the requirements for the higher ed budget can’t be met, K-12 will lose out as well.

Viewing public education as a single pipeline — starting with pre-school and continuing through college — “is right, good and long overdue,” Wilkins said.

Even if students opt out of higher education, the rigors of a college prep track still help them succeed, Wilkins said. Studies have shown “the skills you need to be successful as a college freshmen are the same skills you need to be successful in an entry-level, family-supporting job,” she said.

•••

In spending the stimulus dollars, states must embrace innovative approaches to improving teacher quality, retaining the best workers and raising achievement, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a recent conference call with reporters.

That means considering pay for performance for teachers, expanding opportunities for charter schools and “absolute and complete transparency” when it comes to accountability, Duncan said.

Progress will be closely monitored by the feds. States that fall short will be ineligible to share in a second round of education funding, totaling $5 billion.

“We have some significant carrots,” Duncan said. “We also have some sticks.”

The $5 billion will be allocated in a competitive process Duncan has nicknamed the “Race to the Top.” Innovation and creativity will earn high marks, Duncan said.

Other states are ahead of Nevada in testing new programs and approaches. When asked by the Sun whether a slow start might work against Nevada when the time comes to evaluate progress, Duncan said there’s plenty of time to catch up.

“I don’t think we’re grading on a curve,” Duncan said. “What we’re looking at is real commitment.”

•••

April is teacher transfer season, when educators are allowed to shop for new assignments within the district.

Principals have until the end of April to identify vacancies and notify teachers they intend to “surplus.” In May, the district will begin reassigning surplus staff according to seniority and qualifications.

Based on preliminary budget and enrollment projections, it looks as if there will be enough elementary school teaching jobs to go around, said Martha Tittle, human resources chief for the district. She was less certain about the middle and high school levels, where staffing is more complex.

All elementary teachers are licensed for K-5 instruction, which means an individual can be moved to fill a vacancy in a different grade. But at the secondary level, teachers are grouped by subject area. A math teacher can’t be reassigned to teach English without the appropriate license.

Another problem — the high schools are still “pre-enrolling” students for the fall, gauging their interest in elective classes. Those surveys help determine staffing.

Given that district funding won’t be solidified until the Legislature concludes its work in June, Tittle didn’t want to estimate how many teachers might be left over — and laid off — at the end of the surplus process. But based on the $120 million in cuts that have been outlined for the 2009-10 academic year, the district expects to shed 500 to 600 support employee positions. Many of the support jobs are classroom aides, clerks and facilities staff assigned to projects funded by the capital improvement plan, which is ramping down.

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