Democrats unveil education proposals
Kindergarten is no longer about milk, cookies and nap time, but enabling youngsters to master critical thinking at an early age to succeed later in life, supporters told Nevada lawmakers Monday during a hearing on mandating full-day kindergarten statewide.
Supporters of Senate Bill 182 said under new common core state standards, kindergartners at the end of the year are expected to be able to write opinion essays and comprehend math.
“These are high standards,” said Pat Skorkowsky, deputy superintendent of the Clark County School District.
Sen. Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, said full-day kindergarten has been in Nevada law since 2005, but the Legislature has never fully funded it and cuts were made during the economic downturn. While some schools offer it, others do not or offer it to parents who can afford tuition.
Smith said the bill is about closing achievement gaps.
The measure would also lower to 5 from 7 the age children are required to attend school. Some lawmakers questioned whether parents who feel their children aren’t ready to attend school all day at 5 years old would have other options.
“Home schooling is always an option … if parents feel their child is not ready for that full-day educational program,” Skorkowsky said.
The bill is one of several Democratic proposals up for debate this week in the Nevada Legislature.
Democrats on Monday touted K-12 education priorities for the 2013 session that carries a price tag of at least $300 million – an ambitious package Republicans countered was big on ideals but short on key details like how to pay for it.
Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, said during a morning news conference that many of the concepts are endorsed by Republicans and Gov. Brian Sandoval. But the battle will be over how to fund it all.
Democrats control both the Senate and Assembly but lack the two-third majorities needed to pass taxes or fees.
Expanding all-day kindergarten would cost an estimated $71 million. Only 10 states and the District of Columbia require by statute that school districts provide publically funded full-day kindergarten.
In Nevada, the program is offered at some at-risk schools. Sandoval’s $6.5 billion general fund budget proposal includes $20 million to expand it to more schools.
Another bill, AB163, would phase in state funding for pre-kindergarten programs in districts with one or more at-risk elementary schools and cost about $20 million in the second year of the upcoming biennium.
Other bills to be heard this week target class sizes, pre-kindergarten and English language learning programs. During a special session in 2010, lawmakers gave school districts flexibility on class sizes because of budget cuts and the state’s fiscal crisis during the Great Recession. Restoring those class-size ratios would cost about $95 million.
GOP Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson supports the ideals, but paying for it is another matter.
“I think we need more full-day kindergarten, English language learner programs,” said Roberson, R-Las Vegas. “That’s the easy part. The tough part is how to pay for it.”
Assembly Republicans echoed that criticism.
“While polls show Nevadans support more spending for education, they also don’t want job-killing taxes to accomplish it,” said Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey, R-Reno.
Over the last five years, Smith said the state has cut more than $700 million in K-12 funding during the economic downturn.
In Clark County alone there are more than 54,000 English language students, and Nevada ranks third in the nation in such student populations, Denis said.
Democrats have promised a top-to-bottom review of Nevada tax structure, a system heavily reliant upon sales and gambling taxes that are prone to volatility when the economy tanks.
Sandoval has said he won’t support any new taxes but has remained uncommitted as to whether he’d support an overhaul of the tax structure itself.