Representatives represent

Lots of stuff to read on the Nevada Department of Education's site:

Maybe it’s as simple as this. Nevada’s leaders finally caught up to the overwhelming sentiment of its citizens. We’ve had it with being last in just about every ranking of the public good, especially when it comes to our kids.

The 2015 Legislature approved a host of new programs for children in K-12, many designed to help those who struggle the most, approving a general fund budget of $2.2 billion for our schools over the next two years.

It was refreshing to hear state schools superintendent Dale Erquiaga acknowledge that many of the education programs were not new concepts dreamed up by the governor’s team. Appearing on Ralston Live, Erquiaga graciously credited former legislators and education advocates for their hard work over many long years, recognizing that in order to improve educational outcomes more money should be devoted to supporting Nevada’s students.

Still, you have to give Gov. Sandoval and Erquiaga credit for insisting on a progressive series of new and enhanced programs in K-12, including the expansion of full-day kindergarten to every school in the state. It’s a remarkable turnaround, given that Democratic Speaker Barbara Buckley and Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio fought ferociously about this issue just 10 years ago.

One of the best new programs is the targeting of schools in the poorest zip codes of Nevada, four located in Washoe County. Each underperforming “Victory School” will prepare a detailed plan to qualify for an estimated $750,000, choosing specific services designed to improve student achievement. These might include prekindergarten programs, a summer academy, a reading skills center, or additional instruction or learning opportunities for students during school breaks. Programs must be evidence-based and can also address social, psychological or health care services for students and their families.

Independent evaluations will determine the effectiveness of the new programs in raising student achievement. My guess is, much like the similar Zoom Schools program, the Victory Schools will work. More money and resources carefully targeted to those who need it the most is exactly what’s needed.

Another significant education improvement is the anti-bullying initiative. After years of school officials reflexively minimizing the problem despite heartbreaking testimony from parents, some of whom have lost their children to suicide caused by bullying, $18 million will be devoted to hiring social workers and providing anti-bullying programs in the schools.

Erquiaga, in particular, seemed passionate about the topic when he told Carson Middle School students at the bill signing about his own experiences as a “chubby and prissy” student who was constantly bullied at school and subsequently found someone weaker than himself to pick on.

Despite these and other major strides forward in providing support for public education, it is profoundly disturbing to have Nevada lead the nation in encouraging parents to abandon public schools. Most states that allow vouchers cap their use or direct them to populations such as low-income families or students with disabilities. Nevada’s unprecedented law will pay any and all parents to home-school their children or subsidize their enrollment in religious or private schools.

The constitutionality of the law is likely to be challenged in court since it effectively diverts public money to religious institutions. Many believe private schools will reject the hardest-to-serve students, and the new system will create even more disparity between income groups.

It’s a shame that Nevada now leads the nation in weakening public education at a time when we can finally celebrate the funding of programs progressives have embraced for decades. The swindling of low- and middle-income taxpayers to subsidize wealthy families threatens to subvert the gains we might otherwise make in improving our schools and demeans Sandoval’s education legacy.