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November 26, 2014

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STATE BUDGET:

Special session politics might be at play in ‘Race to the Top’ approach

Gov. Jim Gibbons

Gov. Jim Gibbons

Although qualifying Nevada for the “Race to the Top” education initiative doesn’t appear on the governor’s preliminary agenda for next week’s special session, a spokesman for Jim Gibbons said Tuesday that making Nevada eligible for as much as $175 million in federal education funding remains a priority.

To compete for a share of $4.35 billion in school improvement funds, states must allow the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations. During a special legislative session in 2003, Nevada lawmakers passed a last-minute bill that prohibited using test data in the evaluations.

“The governor has specifically said it’s going to be on the agenda,” Gibbons’ spokesman Dan Burns said. “We’re waiting for details to be worked out between legislators and the governor’s office.”

The governor sets the agenda for special sessions of the Legislature, and can modify it until the Legislature adjourns. “ ‘Race to the Top’ funding has been discussed many times,” Burns said.

But Lynne Warne, president of the Nevada State Education Association, remained skeptical.

“His assurances that it will be dealt with, without actually putting it in the proclamation (for the special session), suggests he’s going to be playing games with it,” Warne said. “I don’t know what he has in mind, but what he’s done so far has been politically motivated rather than motivated by the best interests of the state.”

Warne said there are suspicions that Gibbons plans to “hold ‘Race to the Top’ captive until he gets something he wants from the Legislature.”

The Legislative Committee on Education has drafted a proposed bill that would remove the prohibition against using student test data in teacher evaluations. The state teachers association supports the language, because it specifically states that test scores cannot be the sole criteria or used in disciplinary actions, Warne said.

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, said Gibbons is "playing games" by not including the Race to the Top funding on his initial call.

"This governor, who claims to put education first - this is a clear example of how he puts education last," Horsford said. "He is playing games to appeal to a narrow base to save his reelection. I take offense to that."

Gibbons earlier this year proposed a series of reforms to education that included private school vouchers and eliminating collective bargaining. Horsford would not specify whether Gibbons is holding back the Race to the Top legislation until after the Legislature holds hearings on his proposals.

State Superintendent Keith Rheault said he was surprised not to see the federal “Race to the Top” issue on the agenda released Tuesday.

“We’ve been talking about it and working on it nonstop for two months,” Rheault said. “I guess we all figured it would automatically be there.”

Rheault said he thinks Gibbons intends to deal with the issue during the special session.

As of January, Nevada was one of 10 states that haven’t applied for “Race to the Top.” The deadline for the first round of funding has passed, but Nevada could still be eligible for the second round this summer.

In December before the Legislative Committee on Education, Stacey Woodbury, Gibbon’s deputy chief of staff, told lawmakers she had personally assured U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan that the issue would be resolved in time for the second round’s deadline. Duncan had called Gibbons to express concern that Nevada had not yet dealt with the necessary hurdles to applying for the federal grants.

Removing the prohibition against using student testing data in teacher evaluations isn’t the only hurdle for the Silver State. The feds also want guarantees from states that education funding will be at least equal to 2006 levels, or that the percentage of a state’s overall budget that goes to education will remain for the next year.

If there’s a significant change in Nevada’s education funding levels, the state could still be eligible to enter the “Race to the Top,” but would lose points in the evaluation process.

The state’s “inability to sustain the required funding for ‘Race to the Top’ in the future may be a deterrent, given the bleak revenue picture on the horizon,” said Clark County Schools Superintendent Walt Rulffes.

But that doesn’t mean Nevada shouldn’t put its best foot forward in the race, Rulffes said, noting that the badly needed federal dollars could “provide us with a vision and pathway to reform.”

Reporter David McGrath Schwartz contributed to this story from Carson City.

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