Schooling by law

Legislators eye curriculum, college

In history textbooks these days, the narrative text is almost secondary. The layout of the books is akin to USA Today, filled with tables, maps, graphs, drawings and photos, most in bright colors.

In history textbooks these days, the narrative text is almost secondary. The layout of the books is akin to USA Today, filled with tables, maps, graphs, drawings and photos, most in bright colors.


If Nevada high school students need a lesson in how democracy in action can impact them, they need only look to the Nevada Legislature, where their curriculum, their college prospects, and even their school hours are all subjects of legislation.

Clark County Sen. Richard Segerblom has introduced Senate Bill 211, imposing a mandate on county school districts to provide classes in ethnic studies that include “instruction concerning the culture, history and contributions of African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, European Americans, Basque Americans and any other ethnic Americans deemed appropriate, with emphasis on human relations and sensitivity toward all races.”

The measure is a sharp departure from legislation adopted in neighboring Arizona, where ethnic studies were outlawed entirely, a step that appeared designed to prevent instruction mainly in Latino culture.

“The fact is, the future of Nevada will be even more diverse than today—with reporting that Nevada will flip in just 2019 when ethnic minorities become the majority, an event that the Census projects will not occur for the entire nation until 2044,” Nevada State College professor Leila Pazargadi said in testimony on Segerblom’s bill in the Senate Education Committee. “In my home county, Clark County, CCSD [the school district] is reporting that 74 percent of kindergartners are ethnic American minorities.”

Though some teachers say there is already instruction in ethnic cultures in the course of existing classes, Segerblom reacted sharply.

“The intent of the bill most certainly isn’t being covered by current programs,” he said in an email message. “It’s more than celebrating ’Black History Month.’ It’s having a full-time course which celebrates our diversity and how that will impact Nevada’s future. Ultimately, at this point, we just want to encourage school districts to offer a full-time course in ethnic studies, which will require them to hire and/or train teachers who will teach this subject, which in turn further diversifies our educational system. The goal is to have our universities graduate teachers who major in ethnic studies [and] who in turn go back to our high schools and teach ethnic studies.”

Nevada law has generally required broad subjects be taught in schools, leaving the details for school districts. Nevada Revised Statute 389.018 requires that students be schooled in English (including reading, composition and writing), mathematics, science and social studies. While state legislators mandating curricula in greater detail than those general topics is not common, it has been done in the past. There are ten state statutes requiring certain types of classes. A 1970s enactment, for instance, requires instruction in the “economics of the American system of free enterprise.” Others include citizenship and physical training, suicide prevention, child abuse, American Sign Language, environmental education and “adult roles and responsibilities.”

In another, unrelated provision in the bill, Segerblom seeks to mandate starting times for Nevada schools:

“Each school district shall set the time for the commencement of the school day which must not be earlier than 7 a.m. for an elementary school, 8 a.m. for a junior high school or middle school and 9 a.m. for a high school.”

This schedule is in line with the routines of students, the younger of whom have earlier bedtimes than junior high and high school students. In addition, adolescent development imposes greater need for sleep.

Some school officials say they have no particular problem with the times mandated, but wonder why legislators are getting involved in such matters at all. Administrative minutia is generally considered the province of school districts.

Five fiscal notes attached to the bill say there would be no financial implications. However, the local government fiscal note reports only that it is based on “responses from local governments” without saying which ones—or whether county school districts are among them.

College try

Nevada’s popular Millennium Scholarships program, which provides Nevada high school graduates with $10,000 a year for college, is funded by the state’s share of the tobacco settlement. But those moneys are in decline. Assemblymember Lynn Hettrick and, later, State Treasurer Brian Krolicki tried to get the legislature to cash out the Nevada portion of the settlement, use the money to set up an endowment and let it cook for a while, until it produced annually what the tobacco settlement originally provided. But the legislature rejected those proposals and now, with the fall in tobacco payments, the scholarship program is in financial trouble. Earlier this month, Washoe Sen. Ben Kieckhefer suggested making the Millennium program “a little different” but didn’t get specific.

A few days later, Kieckhefer introduced a measure, S.B. 227, to create a Silver State Opportunity Grant Program to help pay for college. The bill does not specify a fixed amount. Rather, it makes available an amount not to “exceed the amount equal to the cost of education of the student minus the amounts determined for the student contribution, family contribution and federal contribution to the cost of education of the student.”

Students must be enrolled in “at least 15 credit hours … in a program of study leading to a recognized degree or certificate” in order to be eligible for the program. That’s a full-time load, and educators worry that it would mean that students who must work either to pay for the rest of the cost of college or to support a family would not be eligible, with the grants going mostly to those who can afford not to work. That’s a concern at the University of Nevada, Reno, where new married student housing is under construction.

Kieckhefer sought to calm those concerns. “There’s an expectation that people will work,” he said, but that the program will allow them to study while working less. “We’re only expecting them to work 15 hours a week.”

“This is based on a shared responsibility model, where the student is expected to contribute,” according to Kieckhefer. “In fact, the student’s responsibility will generally be the largest share of all contributors. The point is for the state [to] fill the gap for the students [who work] so they can reduce their hours of work to attend full time instead of part time, which basically doubles their chances of graduating. We are trying to help people who are forced to attend part time for those very reasons meet their financial obligations while attending full time.”

Asked why government has an interest in whether students go full- or part-time, Kieckhefer said government has an interest in “a higher likelihood of graduating.”

On what implications his program has for the Millennium Scholarships, Kieckhefer said, “There are none right now.” He said grant recipients can also be Millennium scholars. No fiscal note has yet been attached to the measure.