By Jessica Garcia, Nevada Appeal, April 29, 2023
Gov. Joe Lombardo’s proposed omnibus education bill, Assembly Bill 400, the Education Achievement, Opportunity and Accountability Act, created dissension among K-12’s state union representatives who oppose its ideals and the legislators seeking to improve school choice for families.
The Nevada Assembly Ways and Means Committee’s hearing April 26 was an opportunity to hear Lombardo’s four-part plan with AB400, introduced by chief of staff Ben Kieckhefer. He described the proposal as an “implementation strategy” for the governor’s “groundbreaking investment proposal,” which is meant to fulfill his promise to provide $2 billion in new K-12 funding. The money would boost teachers’ wages, add to school services, increase class time for students and enhance wraparound services to ensure student success, Kieckhefer said.
The plan addresses four key areas: school choice, early childhood literacy, improving the teacher pipeline and increasing accountability.
AB400 would create an Office of School Choice within the Department of Education and require open zoning so families are not limited geographically to the schools they are assigned to by neighborhood boundaries according to their school districts. It creates Opportunity Scholarship funding from what Kieckhefer called a modest $50 million to a total of $500 million by the next biennium. Opportunity Scholarship eligibility would be expanded from 300% to 500% of the poverty level.
The bill provides for charter school development to alleviate chronic overcrowding, and tribal governments or cities can sponsor their own charter schools.
Within the area of early childhood literacy, Kieckhefer said AB400 brings back the accountability provisions of the Read by Grade 3 policy within a five-year timeframe. It also dedicates one-half of any excess revenue from the Education Stabilization Account, which builds a pool of more than $123 million to be used by the Nevada Department of Education to generate evidence-based literacy programs targeting children younger than 6 years old to help prepare them for school, Kieckhefer said.
To help the teacher pipeline, the bill expands and increases funding for Teach Nevada scholarships and Nevada Teacher Advancement scholarships, which Lombardo allowed for additional funding to give potential teachers a pathway for professional development and to receive benefits and certification.
The $123 million from the Education Stabilization Account goes to these teacher advancement accounts, Kieckhefer said, and it’s important to address the ongoing labor shortage to help stop employees from drawing from their Public Employees’ Retirement System benefits early.
But Nevada State Education Association President Dawn Etcheverry expressed opposition to the bill during Wednesday’s hearing, sharing “grave concerns” about the proposal that would “fundamentally compromise K-12 education in Nevada,” she said.
“Opponents of public education point to Nevada’s struggling schools to argue for more choice — in other words, a diversion of public monies to private schools through private school vouchers,” she said. “But the truth is, Nevada schools struggle primarily due to chronic underfunding.”
Etcheverry cited the National Education Association’s annual Ranking of the States for 2022 in per-pupil funding, with Nevada’s public school current expenditures at $11,280 compared to a U.S. average of $16,446.
“NSEA has been saying it’s a rainy day for Nevada schools,” she said.
Mayors in Southern Nevada – Michelle Romero of Henderson and Pamela Goynes-Brown of North Las Vegas – spoke of the benefits AB400 would have in allowing cities to authorize charter school development.
Kieckhefer responded to questions from legislators, including Assemblyman Speaker Steve Yeager, D-Las Vegas, who struggled with the concept of taking state money from the public school system to be given to private schools.
“How do we justify as a Legislature to our constituents that we’re making the choice to take tax money and, instead of putting it in the chronically underfunded public education system, we’re going to use it to fund private schools in a way, but by incentivizing businesses, how do we justify that choice unless and until we get to a point we adequately fund public education in the state?” he asked.
Kieckhefer was quick to answer that the representatives must trust their constituents.
“You’re giving them the option to choose the educational environment that is best suited for their child, and the highest funded, the highest performing public school in this state may not be right for every child,” he answered. “In fact, it’s not. We trust that parent, that grandparent, that aunt or uncle who is helping guide that child’s education to make those choices, and we can do both. This is not an either/or proposition.”