Mona Shield Payne
Published Monday, Feb. 25, 2013 | 4:40 p.m.
Updated Monday, Feb. 25, 2013 | 6:14 p.m.
Educational opportunities for the youngest Nevadans could expand under two proposals from Democrats at the state Legislature.
One bill makes full-day kindergarten mandatory at public and charter schools. It also lowers from seven to five the age at which a child must be enrolled in and attend public school.
The second bill would offer pre-kindergarten classes for students enrolled in low-income elementary schools that the federal government classifies as “Title I” schools.
Children in low and middle-class Nevada families stand to benefit the most from the bills, which would eliminate some financial barriers to early education services.
The total price tag is $71 million to $91 million for full-day kindergarten and $20 million for early education.
That’s money above and beyond what Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval proposed in his budget, and Democrats said Monday at a press conference that they are “discussing” how to best pay for their plan.
Sandoval also wants to expand full-day kindergarten as well, putting forward $20 million in his budget proposal to provide that service at some at-risk schools. Providing it at all schools would bump the price tag up $71 million.
“I contend that the state cannot wait 10 more years for the expansion of all-day kindergarten to all families,” Smith told legislators at an education hearing Monday.
She said the current system has serious inequities, putting some students ahead and leaving others behind. The state’s schools variably offer free full-day kindergarten or half-day kindergarten and some offer full-day kindergarten for a fee. (About 70 Clark County School District schools offer full-day kindergarten for $3,100 per year.)
“What I want is for the state to pay for full-day kindergarten,” Smith said. “You’re creating a have and have-not situation because some parents can afford it and some cannot.”
The $71 million would pay for kindergarten teachers and capital expenses for classrooms.
Facing questions largely from Republican legislators, Democrats touted the short and long-term benefits of early education, including better test scores and lower dropout rates.
“I cannot stress enough the importance of a full-day kindergarten experience to get our students ready,” said Marilyn Dondero-Loop, D-Las Vegas, who is a former Clark County School District kindergarten teacher.
She said in her experience the students in full-day kindergarten develop more behavioral skills and have more self-confidence.
Third grade students who attended full-day kindergarten programs perform better than students who attended half-day kindergarten classes, said Pat Skorkowsky, Clark County School District deputy superintendent, citing a district study.
Opponents to the bill said other studies show minimal gains from full-day kindergarten, and some worried that making it mandatory would impinge on parental rights.
Rorie Fitzpatrick, deputy superintendent at the state’s education department, said that the governor’s budget takes a “measured” approach to rolling out full-day kindergarten programs.
Democrats have advertised their platform on their website, where they also say they want to direct more money to school districts that have higher levels of low-income, English Language Learners, special education students, and gifted and talented students.
When the state dispenses money to school districts, this could tip the scales toward Clark County, which has higher numbers of low-income and English Language learners.
Democrats estimate that these programs will cost $310 million at minimum, but legislative staff have not yet submitted independent cost estimates.
Democrats declined to specify how they plan to pay for these programs.
“We’re following a deliberative process,” said Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas.
They have not given a timeline for when they will disclose even preliminary plans for new taxes, changes to the tax structure or other methods of paying for proposals like full-day kindergarten and early education.