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August 28, 2014

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For shot at a jackpot, state must ante up, alter law

Nevada has the chance to qualify for as much as $200 million in federal education grants. But to do so, the Legislature will have to change state law in a hurry.

That would require a special legislative session that carries at least a $100,000 price tag.

Is the gamble worth it?

Gov. Jim Gibbons says no, unless there is another reason to call legislators to Carson City for a special session.

At stake is a piece of a federal program called “Race to the Top,” which offers funding for schools to pursue innovative programs and initiatives.

To compete for the program’s $4.35 billion in grant money, states must, among other qualifying criteria, allow the use of student test scores in the evaluation of their teachers.

Most states do. Nevada doesn’t.

During a special legislative session in 2003, the Nevada State Education Association successfully pushed for a last-minute bill that explicitly prohibited using test data in teacher evaluations.

The teachers union says it’s being unfairly blamed for standing in the way of Nevada’s chances, because there are more hurdles than the issue of how teachers are evaluated. The union says it doesn’t oppose using assessment data to help improve student achievement.

And, union leaders say, they are willing to begin meeting with lawmakers to try and find some middle ground in advance of a special session.

Among the few states that don’t use test scores in judging teachers’ performance, California changed its law this month so it can try to qualify for a piece of the jackpot.

Nevada education officials are wondering whether they should try to persuade Gibbons to call a special session to do the same. The question might boil down to this: Is it worth $100,000 to go for tens of millions? What about $50 million? Or $200 million?

There’s no guarantee, of course, that Nevada would be successful in the grant application process. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said he envisions the money being shared among the 15 to 20 states demonstrating, among other criteria, the most significant commitment to reform.

Click to enlarge photo

"We're trying to fundamentally change the business we're in, from a large institution that worries about audits and reports ... to one that's really the engine of innovation and best practices," said Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education, on the kind of dramatic change he envisions for public education during an interview in the offices of the Las Vegas Sun.

Calling a special session could be considered a significant demonstration of that commitment.

Andy Smarick, a visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank in Washington, D.C., says he doesn’t understand why Nevada lawmakers wouldn’t want take the risk.

“This is potentially several hundred million dollars the state is disqualifying itself from,” Smarick said. “Do they realize that?”

State law allows only the governor to call a special session, and only the governor can place items on the agenda for discussion. Attempts to amend the state’s Constitution to allow a special session if approved by two-thirds of the Legislature have failed.

Keith Rheault, Nevada’s superintendent of public instruction, said two of the governor’s top aides have indicated to him that Gibbons would be willing to put the “Race to the Top” issue on the agenda for a special session — but only if other state matters require the session.

One reason Gibbons might call a special gathering of lawmakers: skyrocketing costs of the state’s social safety net, specifically Medicaid, which may run out of money before the Legislature meets in 2011.

In the competition for the education dollars, states can earn bonus points for meeting certain criteria. Nevada, for instance, could sign on to a multistate pact to follow the same core academic requirements in math and English. Rewriting Nevada’s academic standards in few months “wouldn’t be easy, but it’s not impossible,” Rheault said.

More difficult, however, will be meeting the criteria for showing the state’s commitment to funding public education. Nevada used $139 million of its share of the federal stimulus package to maintain basic school support, replacing lost state revenue. That would hurt Nevada in the grant evaluation process, Rheault said.

Dan Burns, the governor’s spokesman, said that regardless of the issue, unless there is agreement on legislation ahead of time, including a bill draft request on paper, calling a special session “is a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

Lawmakers have no intention of missing out on federal grant opportunities, said State Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-North Las Vegas.

“All of us want to get a foothold in ensuring Nevada can compete for the ‘Race to the Top’ education grants to support innovation and help turn around failing schools,” Horsford said, adding that he is working closely with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office to clarify the government’s criteria.

Horsford pushed a bill late in the 2009 legislative session that would have cleared the way to use student test scores in teacher evaluations, but it didn’t survive. Lawmakers need to make significant changes to how the state pays for, measures and encourages reform at its public schools — including how teachers are evaluated — “not because the feds tell us to do it, but because it’s the right thing to do for Nevada’s children,” Horsford said.

Lynn Warne, president of the Nevada State Education Association, said the teachers union is ready and willing to meet with lawmakers to discuss the issue. But given that “Race to the Top” grant requirements aren’t expected to be finalized until mid-November, it’s premature to begin hammering out a blueprint of the necessary changes in Nevada, Warne said.

Officials with the Clark County Education Association say they also are not opposed to using test scores to evaluate job performance when it’s an appropriately constructed formula, pointing to the local union’s support for Clark County School District’s “empowerment” pilot program, where entire campuses are judged in part on student performance data.

But if lawmakers are really interested in demonstrating a commitment to education, it will require tackling the long-term insufficiency of the existing funding formula, and not just rushing to change the law to potentially qualify for a one-shot federal grant, Warne said.

The teachers union has been “waiting at the table” for that conversation for years, Warne said — “and we’re still waiting.”

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