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January 20, 2019

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Smaller classes not at top of Sandoval’s education agenda

Crowded Classrooms


With barely enough room to pass between desks, students in Mr. Gularte’s fourth-grade class begin their morning learning in a classroom of 35 students exceeding the average of 30 students at William V. Wright Elementary School, Friday, March 22, 2013.

Crowded Classrooms

With barely enough room to pass between desks, students in Mr. Gularte's fourth-grade class begin their morning learning in a classroom of 35 students exceeding the average of 30 students at William V. Wright Elementary School, Friday, March 22, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Gov. Brian Sandoval has said his administration has two top priorities: education and economic development.

When it comes to education, Sandoval has used both the bully pulpit of his office and his budget to call for school choice, ending social promotion, expanding full-day kindergarten and improving funding for programs targeting English-language learners.

But Sandoval and his administration have been largely silent on one key issue important to education advocates, school districts and Democrats: reining in class sizes.

That’s not to say he’s ignoring it completely.

To Sandoval, class-size reduction efforts are important enough to warrant $325 million in funding for the next two years.

"In his balanced budget, the governor's commitment to K-12 education has increased spending for our schools, including $325 million in total class size reduction funds," said spokeswoman Mary-Sarah Kinner. "The governor’s budget also includes $3.5 million for class size reduction in at-risk kindergarten classrooms."

But Sandoval hasn’t championed small class sizes as a policy priority.

He decided not to mention it in his State of the State address and hasn’t sent his education officials to the Legislature with the mission of pushing class-size reduction.

Quite the opposite.

Sandoval’s education superintendent, James Guthrie, has taken a rather agnostic approach to the question, agreeing class size is important but not of such critical importance that reducing it should necessarily be prioritized over other initiatives.

Sandoval’s budget, for example, includes new money for full-day kindergarten and programs for English-language learners. His proposed funding for class-size reduction -- while hefty at $325 million -- is relatively flat compared to the last cycle and does not restore what has been cut since the economy turned sour.

“We don’t really have a dog in this fight,” Guthrie said. “This is the Legislature’s call. We put the money out there. If they choose to make it general aid, or to pass waivers around class size, that’s fine. If they choose to say to districts to reduce to 15-to-1 (student-teacher ratios) or 16-to-1, that’s fine. That’s up to the Legislature.

“That’s just not something we’re all wrapped up about.”

To some Democratic leaders in the Legislature, that sentiment is infuriating.

“What an appalling statement, that the governor does not have a dog in the fight,” Sen. Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, said. “The governor has a very large dog in the fight.

“How do you not prioritize this when you know how darn big class sizes are?”

Smith said class size is the top complaint she hears from parents worried about their children’s education.

Nevada has never been very good at funding class-size reduction. Not once has the state allocated enough money for districts to reach the 15-to-1 ratio of students for each teacher in first, second and third grades set by state law.

The closest the state has come is funding 16-to-1 ratios in first and second grades and 19-to-1 in third grade.

To reach even the ratios the state conceivably funds, however, Clark County School District has routinely had to supplement the budget with its own money.

Last session, amid continuing revenue shortfalls, the Legislature gave school districts some leeway on the ratios, allowing 18-to-1 ratios in first and second grades and 21-to-1 ratios in third grade.

Even with that funding, Clark County School District can’t meet those targets. Actual class sizes in Clark County are closer to 19-to-1 in first and second grades and 22-to-1 in third grade.

The upper grades have even larger class sizes, reaching an average of 34 students per teacher.

“When you look at fourth through 12th, regular class sizes, we are not doing anything to move that one iota,” Smith said of the governor’s budget.

Democrats want to restore the $95 million that has been cut from the program since 2010. Where they would get the money is yet to be explained. And just how they would accomplish it is also up for debate.

The Democrats’ bill on class size reduction would actually increase the target ratios, recognizing that the funds just don’t exist to get to 15-to-1. That increase, however, was called a drafting error and an amendment has been introduced that would bring the ratio back down to 15-to-1.

But don’t expect the Sandoval administration to push for it.

“I’m not against small classes, it’s just not where my head is,” Guthrie said. “You can have a class of 10 with a terrible teacher, what does that do for a student? Class size may be important, but having a good teacher is even more important.”

Guthrie has questioned the extent of the problem, noting statistics on statewide averages that puts the teacher-to-students ratio at 19.4-to-1.

“The issue is how do school districts choose to allocate their money,” Guthrie said. “They have employed enough educators to run pretty small class sizes. When we hear these stories in Clark County, I’m not disputing they’re teaching 30 or 40 students in a class, but that’s a district choice.”

The average teacher-to-student ratio, however, is a much different thing than the average class size in practice.

Clark County school administrators say it’s misleading to look at that statistic. Not every teacher is in charge of the traditional classroom, due to federal, state and collective bargaining agreement restrictions.

Some teachers are in charge of small groups of special education students. Others are specialists, including art, physical education and music teachers, as well as librarians.

“So when people say ‘just do the math’ and they want to divide the number of licensed personnel, they obviously don’t understand federal law or Nevada requirements," said Joyce Haldeman, associate superintendent. "Nor are they aware of the collective bargaining agreements that put these things in place.”

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