Lawmakers join call to expand all-day kindergarten

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Lawmakers Friday approved K-12 education budget that cuts $87 out of the per-pupil contribution recommended by the governor.

The cut happened when members of the Senate Finance and Assembly Ways and Means committees voted to correct a technical error in calculating the base per-pupil funding the state provides. While the $37.9 million reduction doesn’t sound like much in the $2.8 billion General Fund education budget, it amounts to $87 per-pupil.

That reduces the basic per-pupil support to $5,503 in FY2014 and $5,589 in FY 2015. Hose numbers are still an increase from the current funding level of $5,374.

Joyce Haldeman representing the Clark County School District said that cut could be a big problem for Clark, which finalized its budget Wednesday and has issued contracts to teachers based on the governor’s recommended per-pupil funding.

Deputy Superintendent of Education Julia Teska said the correction was the right thing to do because that money didn’t actually belong in the base budget. But she said the districts have already adopted budgets based on the governor’s recommended per-pupil appropriation and that, this late in the process, the cut could be a major problem. Interim Superintendent Rorie Fitzpatrick too said that deep a reduction per student at this point in the budget process is a serious issue.

Lawmakers, however, didn’t vote to spend the $37.9 million anywhere else and they were informed by staff that they could put it into a one-time per-pupil enhancement — effectively making those district budgets whole.

Many of the members both Republican and Democrat were probably unaware of the consequences of that action when they voted.

With that notable exception, lawmakers closed the so-called Distributive School Account — largest budget in the state system at more than a third of total General Fund spending — pretty much as recommended by the governor. It includes $2.82 billion in General Fund money plus more than $2.6 billion over the biennium in other state-funded revenues including the Local School Support Tax portion of sales taxes and 75-cents of the $3.64 total property tax collections.

Altogether, K-12 funding totals $5.46 billion over the biennium.

Lawmakers agreed with Sandoval’s recommendations that increase total funding for all-day kindergarten classes to $81 million over the biennium.

The existing funding for all day kindergarten totals just about $50 million in the current biennium. The joint Senate Finance-Assembly Ways and Means Committee was told Friday that Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposed budget continues that funding and includes amendments that add about $30 million more, expanding the program from 126 schools to 201 schools statewide.

Analysts explained that brings total state support for all day kindergarten to $40.2 million in fiscal year 2014 and $40.8 million in FY2015.

The number of schools offering all day kindergarten in Carson City would expand from one to four. The vast majority would be in Clark County — 136 schools — with most of the remainder in Washoe — 32 schools.

In addition, they are still waiting on Sandoval’s proposed $39 million addition to the pot to reduce the average size of kindergarten classes from 26 to 21 students.

They approved Sandoval’s proposed funding for English Language Learners — primarily Hispanic students — totaling $11.33 million in 2014 and $17.3 million in 2015.

But they didn’t decide how to spend the money. The first issue is whether to focus the funding on grades K-4 or spread it across all grades from elementary through high school.

“The return on investment is much stronger if we focus those dollars on the early grades,” said Interim Superintendent of Education Rorie Fitzpatrick.

But she said an argument can be made that students in higher grades can also benefit greatly from help with the English language.

The second issue is whether to every school district should get at least $10,000 for ELL programs or the money should be apportioned more directly on a per pupil basis. In any event, Clark County receives the lion’s share of the cash since more than 50,000 of the 71,000 ELL students live there.

They made a similar decision in approving $750,000 a year for the Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) program. The committees voted to decide later whether that program should be administered by the state or by a nonprofit corporation outside the state system.

The funding for class size reduction was questioned after staff indicated that fully one-third of the 15,562 licensed instruction personnel in Clark County are not assigned to a classroom. Instead they are assigned to functions ranging from special education , school libraries, art and music to physical education.

“I’m not an educator but it seems to me that a lot of folks that are licensed are not in the classroom,” said Assemblyman Randy Kirner, R-Reno.

Senate Finance Chairman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, said that “makes our numbers when we look at class size, makes them different from reality.

They were told, however, that Clark school officials are looking at moving more of those people back to classroom assignments to reduce average class sizes that now exceed 30 students. The class size reduction budget totals $304.5 million over the biennium.

The only argument during the three-hour hearing was over the $1 million a year funding for the Teach For America program. That program brings professionals in other fields to schools to teach for a minimum of two years.

Republicans including Assemblyman Paul Anderson, R-Las Vegas, and Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, strongly backed the funding while Democrats repeated their earlier concerns that the money might be better spent on teacher development.

Assemblyman David Bobzien, D-Reno, said he still believes the cash should be distributed by competitive grants, not dedicated to TFA. There were also questions in subcommittee about the $2,500 the program charges for each teacher it provides.

The joint committee approved pulling the TFA money out of the budget and putting it in a separate appropriations bill for debate later. The decision passed on a party line vote with Republicans opposed.


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