Nevada schools superintendent in hot seat over class size |

Nevada schools superintendent in hot seat over class size

SANDRA CHEREBThe Associated Press

Nevada State Superintendent James Guthrie testifies in an education committee at the Legislative Building in Carson City, Nev., on Friday, March 1, 2013. Guthrie told lawmakers that effective teachers trump the issue of class size. Clark County Superintendent Dwight Jones is at left. (AP Photo/Cathleen Allison)

Nevada’s schools chief faced a barrage of retorts Friday from state lawmakers after suggesting class sizes shouldn’t be high on their education priority list.“In an ideal world I would ask that you lift class size restrictions” and let local school districts decide how best to spend their resources, Superintendent James Guthrie said during a joint meeting of the Assembly Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees.While agreeing that class size matters, “An effective teacher trumps all we know about class size,” he said before adding, “In an ideal world … I wouldn’t be concerned about class size.”To Democratic lawmakers who have put class size reduction and expansion of early learning programs at the top of the legislative agenda, Guthrie’s words were like snapping a red flag in front of a snorting bull.Sen. Debbie Smith, chairwoman of the Finance Committee, said Nevada has had class size restrictions for first through third grades for years but has never fully funded it. During budget cuts over the last five years, districts were allowed to increase class sizes, and also apply for variances to exceed limitations even more.“If we didn’t fund class size I’d hate to see what our class sizes would be,” Smith said.Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, said allowing class sizes to balloon would “set our teachers up for failure” for meeting new evaluation standards coming online. She also dismissed Guthrie’s reference to a decades-old study from Tennessee that found while small class sizes had value in the first grade, effectiveness diminished after that.“I can give you a real life study that might work better,” Kirkpatrick chided.Assemblyman David Bobzien, D-Reno, said legislators have witnessed the “systematic dismantling” of public education over several budget cycles, when more than $700 million was cut from K-12 during the recession. Class sizes, he said, “is probably the one thing we’ve been able to hold on to, a level we won’t go below.”Bobzien said while he might support eliminating class size limits at some point, “When we’re trying to hold this whole system together with duct tape and baling wire … we’re not there yet.”Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval is recommending increasing funding for K-12 education by $135 million over the upcoming two years, for a general fund total of around $2.5 billion. Of that, $335 million is targeted for class size. Sandoval’s education initiatives also include $20 million to expand all-day kindergarten to more at risk schools and $14 million for English language learning programs.Gerald Gardner, Sandoval’s chief of staff, told the committees the governor’s proposals “will allow us to make meaningful strides.”“Our governor recognizes that our schools need more,” Gardner said. But Democrats argue Sandoval’s plan doesn’t go far enough. They’ve set their own K-12 agenda that exceeds the governor’s budget by more than $300 million.Nevada law sets a student-teacher ratio of 16-1 for first and second grade and 19-1 in third grade. Smaller counties can have slightly higher ratios. In 2011, legislators allowed districts flexibility to add two students per class, per grade, because of budget cuts. Department of Education administrators said they will be seeking a bill to continue that flexibility.Superintendents of the state’s two largest school districts said some of their classes have more than 30 students.Washoe County Superintendent Pedro Martinez said smaller class sizes should also be in kindergarten“We need to invest more in kindergarten,” he said.Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, asked if, given the state’s limited resources, the state should invest more in smaller class sizes or full day kindergarten.For children who live in poverty, Martinez said, “I need both.”Dwight Jones, Clark County superintendent, said talking about all day kindergarten, “it’s the right conversation.”“But for me the top priority is more teachers in the classroom and bringing class size down.”

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