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Nevada Action for School Options congratulates Nevada’s families and students on making it through another turbulent session of their biennial legislature, for the most part incrementally better off than they began it.

In a session marred unforgettably by the tragic loss of principled and magnetic Assembly Education Committee Chairman Tyrone Thompson, final policy impacts represented neither the best nor worst of times. Nevadans’ educational opportunities will not be dramatically altered as a result of the past 120 days. There were some modest improvements, which include:

  • An overhaul modernization of the “Nevada Plan,” our five-decades-old public school funding formula, represented useful progress and a meaningful step toward improving equity in educational opportunities for all students, including those attending the most underperforming schools. As always, details of the plan’s implementation, and funding transparency will likely prove crucially important.  Our main recommendations focused on improving funding definitions for at-risk students for more usefully addressing Nevada’s particular areas of need, and codifying funding parity for charter school students.
  • The contraction of Nevada’s tiny and universally popular Opportunity Scholarship Program — while good news for the 2,300 lower income students statewide currently receiving scholarships, it was regrettably unfortunate that the legislature decided to cut off opening the program to new students (for the most part).
  • Charter school students in Nevada will generally be better off, with initial steps taken to improve funding parity with other public school students, a more strategic new oversight framework, and a talented new leader in State Public Charter School Authority Director Rebecca Feiden.

This session was also characterized by successfully escaping other, problematic policy changes, some of them coming from well-intended decisionmakers:

  • A proposed moratorium to block the opening of new public charter schools was averted, and we are pleased with our role having helped improve the resulting strategic oversight plan with a focus on successfully serving more of the students who need quality charters most.
  • While we are disappointed at the elimination of the Achievement School District, we are glad that our recommendations for the smooth and seamless transition of the four current and two approved schools it operated to a new home at the State Charter School Authority.
  • Legislative leaders’ abrupt choice to strip provisions of the popular Education Savings Account program will not hurt any current students because funding was never enacted. It will cost Nevadans, or at least delay, the potential nexus of innovative learning opportunities.

Nevada Action for School Options’ founder and president Don Soifer noted, “We need to remember that the last-day plan driven by leadership of each chamber is built on what are widely understood to be dubious foundations, shakily-constructed in Nevada’s constitution. Policy details matter when in comes to their supporting quality educational opportunities, and many of those details are still taking shape.”

Soifer continued, “The likely outcome will be a series of court decisions in the coming months, which just might pull the rug out from much of what was resolved in the final days of the session.

“Our first-ever legislative session sharpened our commitment to advancing quality educational opportunities equitably for all Nevada students and will remain just as fervent as ever in the months and years to come.”

Finally, the real highlight of this session was the admirable and capable of a diverse collection of leaders from across Nevada’s education spectrum, from proven champions like Senator Scott Hammond and Clark County Black Caucus Chair Yvette Willliams to emerging advocates for quality schools like Kris Schneider, chairman of the new Nevada Council for American Private Education; Mater Academy charter school leader for equity Renee Fairless and brand new, innovative lawmaker and high school teacher Selena Torres.

Watch our email, Twitter and Facebook updates as developments happen.

 

Don Soifer, Nevada Action president, was interviewed on May 30, 2019 on Kevin Wall Live and Local on 790 Talk in Southern Nevada and the Nevada Talk Network.  He updated the latest developments in the Nevada Legislature relating to the Opportunity Scholarship program and expectations for the final week of the session

 

Ten-minute video interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Victor Joecks from Nevada Action’s “command post” in Carson City updates the latest news and developments about the Opportunity Scholarship program, charter schools, and other education news in the final five days of the Nevada Legislature’s 2019 session.

Soifer talks about prospects for school choice as Legislature winds down

 

Nevada’s Opportunity Scholarship program is relatively tiny — during the most recent, 2018-19 school year, 2,300 income-eligible students received scholarships statewide.  Nonetheless, it remains one of Nevada’s most popular education programs, across nearly every group measured, according to a scientific 2019 poll published in February.

Overall, 68 percent of all Nevadans support the Opportunity Scholarship program, while only 29 percent oppose it. Support polled highest among (in order): middle-aged adults, millennials, African-Americans, and those living in Nevada’s suburbs.

The program’s popularity is widespread. More than two-thirds of Hispanics (70 percent) and African-Americans (69 percent) support Nevada’s Opportunity Scholarship program. Support was even higher among Hispanic parents (74 percent) and African-American parents (70 percent).

In fact, the poll found that, when the interviewer included a brief explanatory note about the program, respondents who identified themselves as Democrats living in Clark County expressed support for the Opportunity Scholarship program at a rate of 68 percent in favor and 27 percent opposed. Without the added definition, support from this group was still quite strong — 44 percent in support and 13 percent opposed.

Nevadans who were “strongly opposed” to the Opportunity Scholarship program were much more likely to be from higher-income households (18 percent with annual incomes greater than $60,000) than low-income homes (7 percent with incomes below $40,000).

The Opportunity Scholarship program began in 2015.  It permits students from households whose income falls within 300 percent of the federal poverty line to apply for scholarships to attend participating private schools.  The average scholarship size was approximately $4,500, and the average annual household income for recipients is $45,694, according to the Nevada Department of Education. Businesses receive tax credits against their Modified Business Tax liability in the amount of their approved contributions.

The full polling methodology, including scripts and data, is published online here.

Don Soifer, Nevada Action for School Options

Testimony in Neutral to SB543

Before the Senate Finance and Assembly Ways and Means Committees

May 21, 2019

 

Chair Woodhouse, Chair Carlton and Committee Members, I am Don Soifer from Nevada Action for School Options and I appreciate this opportunity to provide testimony about SB543.

We are deeply appreciative for the commitment to supporting equity for all students from which this proposal has emanated. Our recommendations here are offered with the goal of making the most of this historic chance to advance equity of educational opportunities.

The current draft of SB543 proposes to provide additional weighted funding (Section 3) to each student who is: an English Learner, an at-risk pupil, a student with a disability or a gifted and talented pupil. Section 16 defines an “at-risk pupil” as “a pupil who is eligible for free or reduced-price lunches pursuant to 42 USC, or an alternative measure prescribed by the SBOE.”

Nevada can now at this crucial juncture benefit from the lessons of other states that have reformed their school funding formulas to support their educational needs. Our first recommendation is that the Nevada Department of Education undertake a serious review initiative, and that the Legislature should use the interim period as a study period to consider our best options for serving our specific educational needs.

The present legislative draft selects an understandable starting point for defining “at-risk” students, given that 50 percent of Nevada eighth graders who are eligible for the federal program demonstrated math skills at “Below Basic” levels in 2017 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, while only 21 percent of students from higher-income homes did so. It should be treated as just this, a starting point.

Its implications mean that a student eligible for reduced-price lunches under the federal guidelines, which can be indicate household income of up to 185% of federal poverty levels, is funded at the same level as students with risk factors including homelessness, in foster care, being over-aged and under-accredited in high school, or the other risk factors including those listed below, regardless of how many different are present with a particular student.

For schools striving to be more proactive addressing the needs of their at-risk students, early identification of risk factors matched with supports to mitigate risk, access to targeted resources is vital to their success.

Researchers now understand more about the ways a child’s brain responds to trauma and toxic stress in their lives, both in terms of cognition and expression, often leading to executive functioning impairments that also impair classroom learning. Effectively-targeted resources can support schools for such strategies.

As Nevada educators work hard to become the fastest-improving state in the nation for elementary and secondary education, to meet the goals of our state plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, growth in grade-level proficiency is central to this progress. We must not, however, do this at the cost of ignoring the urgent needs of students grappling to rise above the below-basic level of math and reading skills, whose impact on Nevada’s economy will be every bit as profound.

For the 7 percent of Nevada children living in extreme poverty (50 percent of the federal poverty line), or the 2,000+ unaccompanied homeless children and youth, nine out of ten of these considered unsheltered, these decisions will especially matter. (Children’s Advocacy Alliance, 2018 Nevada Children’s Report Card)

Also for, as the Clark County Education Association noted in its 2019 Critical Issues report, schools primarily serving students of color and those living in poverty that suffer from teacher vacancies at a higher rate than other schools.

Understanding these aspects of our students’ lives makes these factors from other states’ at-risk funding designations especially pertinent:

  1. Below federal poverty guideline (Oregon, NC)
  2. National School Lunch Program – free only, (Kentucky, Colorado)
  3. National School Lunch Program – full weight for free, half weight for reduced (MN)
  4. Homeless, foster youth, an over-age high school student, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families eligible, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program eligible (Illinois, Washington DC)
  5. Unsatisfactory academic performance measured by standardized test performance (Utah, Arizona, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina)
  6. Two of the following: National School Lunch Program, habitual truancy, homeless, migrant, English language learners, recent immigrant (three years), over-age high school student (Michigan)[1]

The Denver Public Schools, for instance, enacted a system to budget approximately $500 for students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and then additional targeted financial resources to students who are homeless, in the foster care system, and whose families receive food stamps.

Funding for at-risk students in the District of Columbia provides schools with additional resources targeted to support students who have experienced homelessness, the foster care system, high school students who are over-aged and under-accredited, and those eligible for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs.

It will also be crucial that our public charter schools be no less resourced to support the students who need them most – for which they will be held accountable.

Our second recommendation observes that this bill’s current draft lacks any direct stipulation that weighted funding for charter school students be equal to that of their peers in other public schools. Although the authors’ intentions to establish this parity seems clear to us in this room, there will likely be value down the road in requiring this explicitly in statute, and in getting this intention onto the legislative record.

Thank you.

 

[1] Emily Parker and Michael Griffith, The Importance of At-Risk Funding, Education Commission of the States, June 2016, p. 4.