MONA SHIELD PAYNE / SPECIAL TO THE SUN
Friday, June 7, 2013 | 2 a.m.
It makes for good politics when legislators say they’re doing everything for the kids.
But sometimes they’re right.
Parents with children in the Clark County School District can expect some major changes as a result of bills the Legislature passed during the past few months.
Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval and legislators from both parties are quick to tout the hundreds of millions of dollars they’ve funneled into the state’s $2.5 billion education budget.
“We did a number of landmark things that I think will really help the state’s education system,” said Assemblyman Elliott Anderson, D-Las Vegas, chairman of the Assembly Education Committee.
Here’s what all the political talk of education means for children in Clark County:
Graduation requirements to change
If Sandoval signs the bill, high school students won’t have to pass the proficiency exam to graduate from high school. Beginning in the 2014-2015 school year, they’ll have new requirements that the State Board of Education will determine.
Students will still have tests to take, but legislators said they voted to scrap the high school proficiency exam because it didn’t match new education standards the state has adopted.
“That’s landmark legislation that is going to be a better predictor of college success because it aligns with the new Common Core standards that pretty much every state has adopted,” Anderson said.
Assembly Bill 288 also mandates that students in 11th grade take an ACT or SAT-like test but doesn’t require that the score count toward graduation.
For students entering their senior year later this year, the bill says that the state board has to decide by Aug. 1 what requirements seniors will have to meet in order to graduate.
Class sizes are reduced, kind of
The Legislature also told school districts to count kids more often. While this may seem obscure or meaningless, the new quarterly head counts are vital for both state funding and class-size measurements.
While many parents care about how many children are in their kids’ classes, legislators have complained for years that they don’t really know average class sizes because school districts only counted the number of students in a class on the last day of the first month of the school year.
“If you just count one day, we’re not getting an accurate picture of what’s going on,” Anderson said. “Think about it: you could count everybody in there for one day, then you could put as many kids in there as you want for the rest of the year, but you’d just have that one count day. Now we’ll get better data about what’s going on.”
The Legislature passed Assembly Bill 2 in the early morning special session June 3. It calls for ratios of one teacher to every 16 students for kindergarten, first-grade and second-grade classes. The ratio for third-grade classes is 18-1.
But the class-size reduction section of the state’s big education bill also says it’s OK to increase class size “in recognition of the significant downturn in the national and state economies and to allow school districts flexibility in addressing budget shortfalls during this fiscal crisis.”
So, in reality, the bill says the ratios can be 18-1 in the first and second grade and 21-1 in the third grade. The bill also says that districts should reduce class sizes by prioritizing small classes in high-poverty schools.
Better programs for English-language learners
Both Sandoval and Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, made it a priority to better fund programs for students who don’t speak English well. The state’s improving economy and some legislative money shifts bolstered the state’s ability to provide for English-language learners.
Senate Bill 504 passed unanimously with all legislators voting for $49 million in new spending. (About $39.4 million, or 80.5 percent of that money is headed to Clark County schools.)
That money is destined for so-called “zoom schools” that have the highest percentage of students who don’t speak English well and also have the lowest test scores.
The Clark County School District will have until Aug. 15 to decide which schools to designate as “zoom schools.”
Those schools will provide kindergarten free of charge, operate reading skill centers to provide individual tutoring for students who are deficient in the English language, and provide summer school academies free of charge.
Summer school academies not held at “zoom schools” will be tuition-based, said Joyce Haldeman, associate superintendent with the Clark County School District.
The district reports that 53,090 of the 94,619 who would qualify for English-language learner programs are actually receiving English instruction.
A report released by the Lincy Institute in March argued for increased English-language learner funding, noting that Nevada is one of few states not to apportion money in a state education funding formula for children who don’t speak English well.
More full-day kindergarten
Parents can also expect many elementary schools in Clark County to open new full-day kindergarten classes this upcoming school year.
That’s because Sandoval’s budget includes more than $30 million to expand full-day kindergarten programs. While falling short of Democrats’ goal to provide for free, universal full-day kindergarten, the governor’s program likely will expand access to full-day kindergarten to more than 200 schools that don’t currently have it.
The bulk of those will be in Clark County.
Which schools get the full-day kindergarten classes depends on two things: the number of poor children attending a school and the number of children attending the school who do not speak English well. The higher those numbers, the more likely a school will receive a state-funded full-day kindergarten program.
If a school gets a new full-day kindergarten program, parents have the choice to opt out and keep their child at home.
The Legislature also provided for more full-day kindergarten funding in a $50 million bill expanding programming for English-language learners. It’s still unclear how much of that money will be dedicated to full-day kindergarten programs at schools with high populations of students deficient in English.
Cheating to be reported
Although a bill to punish students for cheating died in the early days of the legislative session, high schools will now be required to file reports with the State Board of Education detailing the number and percentage of students who are caught cheating and what the punishments are.
What didn’t make the cut
It’s also notable what didn’t happen at the State House. While the contents of some education bills were rolled up into other bills, a slate of education bills died outright.
Besieged within a swirl of heated rhetoric and outright misinformation, a comprehensive and controversial sex education bill died in late May. The failure of Assembly Bill 230 sparked a frenzy of outrage from progressive groups intent on its passage.
But children in the Clark County School District will still receive sex education as prescribed in the district’s curriculum.
A bill that would have allowed parents to commandeer a failing school and possibly transform it into a charter school also died in late May. Senate Bill 311 would have allowed 55 percent of parents to transform a failing school into an empowerment school, which under existing law means that the school would be mandated to have a rigorous improvement plan. Although the bill passed unanimously in the Senate, an unusual coalition of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats killed the bill in an Assembly vote.