Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Seven local education candidates — none of them incumbents — shared their opinions on how to improve Nevada's schools at a public political forum on Tuesday.
Like most political debates this election season, the event had all the usual suspects: impassioned candidates, time-checking moderators and concerned citizens. However, unlike most political forums, Tuesday night's event was planned, organized and executed by nearly two dozen east Las Vegas Valley high school students.
The students — mainly from Las Vegas High School and East Career and Technical Academy — asked thoughtful questions of the seven candidates who are running for the State Board of Education and the Clark County School District Board of Trustees. The topics during the 1 1/2-hour forum included education funding and "reforms" such as ending social promotion in Nevada.
The informational forum was hosted by Leaders in Training, a local nonprofit group that was recently formed to prepare students for higher education through an intense after-school tutoring program. The city of Las Vegas and the Young Nonprofit Professional Network of Southern Nevada also helped co-host the event, which was attended by about 50 people.
Leaders in Training founder Erica Mosca — a former Teach For America teacher — said she came up with the idea for a student-led political forum to help develop leadership qualities in her program participants as well as educate the public about the candidates running for down-ticket races. The students chose to highlight education candidates because it affects them the most, she said.
All of the candidates were invited, but seven showed up: retired union electrician Forrest Darby and Zappos.com college recruiter Alexis Gonzales-Black, running for state school board, district 1; CCSD consultant Allison Serafin, running for state school board, district 3; software technology company founder Mark Newburn, running for state school board, district 4; construction project negotiator Kevinn Donovan, running for local school board, district A; radio show host Rose Moore, running for local school board, district B; and charter school consultant James Clinton, running for local school board, district E.
Right off the bat, the candidates — most of whom were not running against each other — engaged in a debate over state education funding. Although state support has increased over time to about $7,500 per student, Nevada is among the lower per-pupil spending states in the country, and local school districts such as Clark County have seen cuts to staff and programs in the wake of the recession.
"I believe teachers and schools here just don't have the funding," Darby said, arguing for Nevada to collect more taxes from "Wall Street and mining." "It makes such a difference … when you put money in schools. Here, we put no money in schools. It's deplorable."
Donovan agreed with Darby's premise, arguing that legislators need to amend the K-12 education funding formula so that Southern Nevada receives a fairer share of money.
However, Donovan said there were other districts in the country that get less funding than Nevada but are able to produce more high school graduates. Clark County has among the lowest graduation rates in the country, graduating just 57.1 percent of students in the Class of 2009, according to Education Week.
It's all about return on investment, however, Serafin said. The state should invest in programs that have a proven track record to work, such as early childhood education, and do away with programs that don't work, she said.
Privatization of some nonclassroom departments, such as food services, transportation and landscaping, might yield savings for cash-strapped districts, Moore said. Gonzales-Black agreed, saying Clark County could learn from other school districts, such as the Houston Independent School District, which privatized its food service department.
"The focus of school districts is to be excellent at educating kids," Gonzales-Black said.
Darby said, however, that privatization is a slippery slope that leads to big profits for outside contractors, but might not deliver on the same quality of service.
"A lot of money goes to people who make that contract," he said. "When you privatize anything, the folks who own it make all of the money and the folks who do the work suffer."
Clinton said he wasn't a big advocate of privatization, but would advise the School District to find more efficiencies. Moore agreed the district could do a better job allocating its money to better use, saying she sees a lot of waste in the district.
There are many expensive "shiny textbooks" that stay unused in the backs of Las Vegas classrooms, Gonzales-Black said. That's why teachers need to be in on any funding discussions relating to school materials and curricula, she said.
Candidates also debated English Language Learner instruction, which is a mounting concern among education leaders as Nevada's Hispanic and immigrant populations continue to grow.
The community must embrace the diversity in Las Vegas, engaging groups such as the Latino Chamber of Commerce and others in the valley to improve ELL instruction, Clinton said.
Donovan pushed for Las Vegas to become the first major urban district to adopt a full bilingual education. Although Moore said she agreed with the value of bilingual education, she questioned why school newsletters are sent home in both English and Spanish when there is so much emphasis on trying to teach English to non-native speakers.
Other candidates advocated for a different type of education, one that would meet the demands of the 21st century workforce. Newburn, who sits on UNLV's engineering alumni group, said he sees so many local companies struggle to find college graduates who are adept in science, technology, engineering and math — otherwise known as STEM.
"It's because we can't produce kids with high math skills coming out of high school," he said, adding the brain shortage makes diversifying Nevada's economy difficult to attain.
Clinton and Moore championed for more vocational opportunities for students as a means to develop the Las Vegas workforce. College may not be the right fit for everyone, and students should be provided with internships and trade classes, they argued.
"A lot of people want to go into the trades or the military," Clinton said. "We should encourage kids to become what they want to be."
"We need companies here who will train you in your senior year (of high school and in community college)," Moore said. "Right now, the vocational training here is not satisfying to you kids."
However, college readiness should still be the goal of Nevada's education system, Serafin said. Children deserve that option, and the state should adopt a number of "reforms" to achieve that goal, she said.
One change, which was supported by many candidates such as Clinton, Donovan, Gonzales-Black and Serafin, is to end social promotion, or the shuffling of nonproficient students from grade level to grade level. States such as Texas and Florida have already ended the practice.
Serafin would also push to replace Nevada's high school exit exam with the nationally normed ACT college entrance exam, which more accurately measures college readiness. To help students prepare for college rigor, they should start school earlier — by age 5 or 6, not the legal minimum age of 7, she said.
Candidates seemed mixed on the idea of teacher evaluations. All argued for more teacher support, but they differed in their idea of consequences for lack of student improvement.
Serafin and Gonzales-Black said they supported the Legislature's decision to end seniority-based layoffs and heralded a new system that would take into account teacher performance when it comes to deciding budgetary layoffs.
Clinton said ineffective teachers should be given additional support and training, but remained steadfast that instructors ultimately must be held accountable for student outcomes.
"It's a disservice to our students if we don't do that," Clinton said, referring to "tough conversations" with teachers over poor evaluations.
"We do have bad teachers but they are few and far between," Moore retorted. "We've got to stop teaching to the test. Don't throw away the teacher with the bathwater."
None of the candidates spoke to the school district's tax initiative to renovate aging schools. All the candidates agreed something must be done to improve Nevada's education system, which ranked dead last in the nation according to the latest KidsCount report.
Donovan lamented that none of the incumbents came to the forum to defend their record, even though not all of the opponents showed up either. As Donovan made this observation, a mother in the audience muttered, "Shame on them."
"If you like where we're going, you can vote for my opponents," he said. "But if you want change and someone who shows up, then vote for us."
School District spokeswoman Amanda Fulkerson said School Board President Linda Young and Vice President Deanna Wright were traveling with Superintendent Dwight Jones to an out-of-town education conference with the Council on Great City Schools. School Board member Chris Garvey, who is a dental hygienist, could not get out of work Tuesday night.
The absent incumbents sent their regrets before the forum, Mosca said. Leaders in Training's event coincided with the national presidential debate as well as other local events, she said.
The three incumbent candidates have regularly attended School Board meetings, district functions, school events and sit on various education committees. All board members send newsletters, make their phone numbers available and talk with their constituents in Parent Advisory Committee meetings.
Still, a few students who organized the public forum said they felt slighted that none of their elected representatives showed up to their first major event.
"To me, I don't like that they didn't come," said Eldorado High School sophomore Angel Fort, 15. "It bothered me. If I were a voter, it would have made my decision."
Parents of the students and community members said they were proud of the student's efforts to put on their own political forum.
"I was very impressed by all of them," said Las Vegas resident Natalie Massey, whose daughter, Natasha, is a freshman at East Career and Technical Academy. "They touched on a lot of good issues."
"It was challenging at first because we didn't know what we were doing," Natasha Massey, 14, said. "But by the end, we learned so much. I'm really proud (of our event)."