Thursday, March 24, 2011 | 2:01 a.m.
I am speaking out today for a cause I believe in deeply.
More than 20 years ago, when I took office as governor, I made reducing class sizes in Nevada elementary schools the chief goal of my new administration.
I believed then and believe now that nothing is more important than giving children in primary grades the best start in school we can. That means having them in classrooms where they receive more individual instruction in reading, writing and math. In short, it means classes with fewer students per teacher.
The first phase of class-size reduction was put in place for kindergartners and first-graders in the 1990-91 school year. In 1991, the Nevada Legislature appropriated funds to reduce pupil-teacher ratios in the first and second grades and selected kindergartens to 16-1.
It is important to remember that in late 1991, the state faced a massive budget shortfall, and we severely cut back on state spending and programs. But we preserved class-size reduction, because it was a cornerstone of our commitment to helping every child in Nevada succeed in school.
We wanted to extend class-size reduction to third grade — giving our children the benefit of smaller classes in their first three or four years of school — and we were finally able to achieve that in the mid-1990s, when third-grade class sizes were reduced to 19 students per teacher.
This has been a significant financial commitment by the state to provide the best opportunities for our children and their future. Since its inception, about $1.8 billion has been invested in class-size reduction. Hundreds of thousands of our students have benefited from it. Every survey conducted has found parents believe strongly in smaller classes, and that their children are better off because of them.
The rapid growth of our economy and population in the late 1990s and early 2000s brought many new families to Nevada, many of them with children for whom English was a second language, or who did not speak English at all. These children needed that extra attention.
We did not have enough classrooms in all of our schools to accommodate smaller classes, and as a result some classes were team-taught, with two teachers in a classroom. We have successfully dealt with that as we built more schools.
There was resistance in some legislative sessions to fully fund class-size reduction or to give school districts the option of increasing class sizes in the lower grades. Most recently, in the 2010 special legislative session, districts were authorized to increase class sizes by up to two students in first, second and third grades to cope with the current budget crisis.
This was adopted as a temporary measure. I did not view it as abandoning our commitment to keeping class sizes smaller for the benefit of our young children. In good times and bad, we have persisted in preserving the best learning environment for them.
For the first time in 20 years, the proposed budget would make class-size reduction an optional program along with multiple other programs. School districts would be forced to choose what to eliminate.
Given the fact that K-12 funding levels would be significantly reduced, there is a real risk that our schoolchildren would be forced into much larger classes at the earliest stage of their education when they are in the most need of personal attention.
This is not an acceptable alternative for balancing the state’s budget — shifting the burden to schools, teachers and our youngest students. We would be abandoning our 20-year commitment to giving our children the best start we can. I am urging our legislators to reject this proposal — our children deserve better.
Bob Miller was governor of Nevada from 1989 to 1999.