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October 16, 2018

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Think tanks: Here’s what really needs to get done to improve education in Nevada


Gov. Brian Sandoval talks with kindergarten teacher Marilou Zamora while touring Manuel Cortez Elementary School in Las Vegas on Friday, Sept. 13, 2013.

Here’s a hypothetical situation:

If state legislators could pick only a few programs to pass this legislative session to improve education, what should they choose?

When Gov. Brian Sandoval took to the Legislature in January to give his State of the State address, he had a long list of education initiatives he wanted to see lawmakers support.

But according to a report released this week by the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities and Nevada Succeeds, two state policy think tanks, some programs would help fix Nevada’s ailing education system more efficiently than others.

“We are supportive of most of them,” said Seth Rau, policy director for Nevada Succeeds. “It’s just trying to figure out, OK, if we have limited funds in the state, what do we prioritize?”

Here are the initiatives they say will give Nevada taxpayers the most bang for their buck:

Expanding early education

Studies have shown that children who begin their education before kindergarten require fewer resources when they get older. The report argues that Nevada can save money down the road by ensuring as many students as possible have access to full-day preschool and by taking advantage of $43 million in grants for early education programs from the federal Race to the Top initiative.

Right now, only 30 percent of the state’s children attend school before kindergarten. Preschool attendance has also been linked to higher income and less criminal activity later in life.

Reforming the funding formula

Right now the formula that determines per pupil spending in the state’s school districts is pretty out of date. Advocates have said the formula should be adjusted to set aside more money for English language learners and special education students.

Doing so would shift funding to districts that desperately need it, like Clark and Washoe counties. The report calls on the Legislature to pass a revision of the formula and hold school districts accountable for the added funding they would receive because of it.

Kickstarting school construction

Clark County lost the ability to raise construction bonds to build new schools in 2008. As a result, overcrowding issues have grown to affect nearly a third of elementary schools. While a bill to renew school districts’ bond authority passed the state Senate in a party line vote Monday, it has yet to clear the state Assembly, where it could meet even stiffer resistance. With a long list of overdue renovations and enough elementary students to fill 32 new schools, Rau said school construction should be a priority.

Investing in college readiness and professional development

Surveys have shown that high school students who earn college credit are more focused in college and more likely to graduate. Similarly, students taught by teachers who have undergone professional development perform better.

The report supports the $25 million Sandoval promised to improve these areas, as well as $8 million more in funding for career and technical academies throughout the state.

Improving literacy

Just like research has shown preschool attendance correlates with better outcomes later in life, studies also show that students who aren’t literate by third grade do significantly worse in middle and high school. In Clark County, English language learners constitute more than half of some schools’ students. The report argues the state should immediately fund Gov. Sandoval’s literacy initiatives, which add up to $177 million. A large portion of that money would go to schools in Clark County.

Other programs on the table this session — like all-day kindergarten and creating a separate school district for low-performing schools — are important, Rau said, but are also nuanced issues that don’t currently have cut and dry solutions.

For instance, full-day kindergarten is offered in low-income neighborhoods but rarely in high-income ones. While it would be ideal to offer it everywhere, the paper argues many at-risk students are already covered under the present policy.

And, while a hot-button issue, Sandoval’s proposed achievement district is only one way to turnaround failing schools. The report says the state should monitor alternatives and look to other states first before implementing the program in Nevada.

Rau said the report was meant to rely on research to determine the most efficient way to improve education.

“We really wanted to show where the research matters,” Rau said. “It’s to make sure the legislators understand what will move the needle in student achievement.”

Read the report below.

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