Public education is one of Nevada’s two “Billion-Dollar Babies”. Education and Medicaid state budget appropriations are each written in 10 figures.
Money spent on education is a political lightning rod; it supercharges elections. For decades politicians have won and lost here based on this issue. That pressure is about to be redoubled, and controversies remaining from this year’s historic three-session Legislature could get even nastier.
The root cause is a federal program whose title nobly asks we leave “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB). On a purely education-reform level, this is a worthwhile effort. However, in political terms, it’s volatile.
This is President Bush’s initiative designed to improve teaching, increase testing and raise achievement. However, after establishing laudable goals, he and Congress welched on their commitment to adequately fund NCLB. In Clark County alone, $150 million in Nevada tax dollars are required for this first biennium’s phase-in.
Innovative education programs with high price tags have never been popular here. Without more federal help, Nevada’s costs will mount. And in the near term, many of these goals may be unattainable, at any price.
One example: Because of rapidly-growing numbers of non-English-speaking students and NCLB’s unforgiving mandates, it is virtually impossible for some Nevada schools to earn a passing grade in the near term. A child who does not speak English, whether 6 or 16 years old, cannot achieve a full year’s academic growth in a single year. It may be impossible for Nevada’s 53,000 “limited English proficient” (LEP) students to succeed fast enough to avoid school failures.
Here’s why: When the federal officials declared “no child” be left behind, they meant it. Schools are required to bring every student, whether struggling with a language barrier or genuine learning disability, up to grade level within 10 years. This means all students starting with test scores below grade level must exceed one single grade’s achievement until they catch up. They must achieve a full grade level’s growth plus a second increment. Each year. Despite language or learning disability issues.
Ask yourself, if you had gone to France during your childhood, could you have learned algebra, geography or biology taught by a teacher speaking French? Yes, you could. But it would have taken extra time. For a child with a genuine learning disability, the same rules apply. The pressure placed on below-grade-level students will be overwhelming.
Nevada’s teachers are talented people and most are looking forward to the challenges ahead. Without question, these professionals and the system at large will achieve major quality improvements year-by-year, benefiting all students. But it will take time.
NCLB is a forced transition, refocusing education onto struggling below-average students. Each year many schools will be officially labeled “Needing Improvement”, and listed as such in newspapers and on TV. Each transition year the number of schools added to this list will grow. Educators will be under great stress. Don’t worry about education’s leaders. They will react well to this pressure.
The question is, can Nevada’s harshly judgmental political and media communities of second-guessers leave education’s professionals, students and parents alone long enough to struggle through this tough transition? We need to appreciate what students and educators are suffering through and have patience with those professionals who are both in charge and accountable. Allow them and their students the time needed to work their way through this reform program.
If we can, there is opportunity for great success. If not, meddling outsiders might just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.