Opportunity missed

Steven Miller, Patrick Gibbons

Three months ago, the new majority leader of the Nevada Senate, Steven Horsford, seriously displeased the president of the Nevada State Education Association teacher union.

Horsford did so by admitting, indirectly, the long and lethal hostility of that union to virtually each and every effort to reform Nevada public education.

"It is about the future and the children who depend upon us in the classroom," said the young majority leader in a debate over the hotel-room-tax increase. "The children are more important to me than any teachers group, than any company who thinks they can decide tax policy."

As declarations of independence go, this was small beer. Still, in a state Democratic Party that usually operates as a wholly owned subsidiary of the teacher union, it caused shock waves. NSEA President Lynn Warne "lashed out," in the words of the Las Vegas Sun, suddenly blaming the new majority leader for all kinds of alleged ills that the union has used as political cudgels for decades. Of course, all that was long before Horsford became an important actor on the political scene.

What really alarmed Warne, some people thought, was the possibility that Horsford might become the education reform leader that many Democrats in Nevada have long desired: someone who actually does care more about the educational welfare of Silver State kids than about kissing the hem of NSEA garments.

But what does Horsford's first session leading the Senate tell us about that possibility?

Well, the debates about education were dominated by discussions of possible budget cuts. Yet despite all the alarmist talk, the state's basic support per pupil will actually increase. For the school year now ending, basic per-pupil support averaged $5,215. But for the 2009-10 school year, the legislature approved a basic support package of $5,251 per pupil. For 2010-11, it's $5,395.

So much attention went into debates over spending levels that little time was given to the subject of the education reforms necessary to make public education accountable, responsive and effective. The problems Horsford ran into on this front didn't appear to come from the minority Republicans, who seemed more than willing to assist him with public education reforms. Instead, it was Horsford's own party that, once again, seemed to be the primary stumbling block — and with most of the resistance apparently located in the Nevada Assembly.

Horsford's pet project for this legislative session was SB 330, dubbed "The Initiative for a World-Class Education in Nevada." SB 330 would have restructured the hierarchy of the Nevada Department of Education in a way that some insiders say would have assisted education reform in the future. The bill passed the Senate, 21-0, but died in the Assembly Education Committee — after arriving in the last few hours of the 2009 session.

On the charter-school front, Democrats and Republicans in both houses appeared eager to enact some much needed changes to Nevada's restrictive charter-school laws with AB 181. However, the Democrats in charge of the Assembly and the Senate never agreed on exactly how this was to be done. The Senate voted to create a statewide "Charter School Institute," which would relieve the hostile State Board of Education of its statutory role as a charter-school sponsor. The Assembly refused to accept the Senate's amendment, and the bill died.

Finally, there was the attempt to create an alternative pathway to teacher certification — Sen. Barbara Cegavske's SB 259. The bill barely passed the Senate, with Horsford and Terry Care as the only Democrats voting in favor. The bill then spent almost a month in the Assembly before it died in the Education Committee.

This was a particularly dire blow against minorities in Nevada, because evidence suggests not only that alternative teacher certification programs improve education quality, but also that such programs increase the diversity of the professional teacher workforce. Nevada needs reform here, given the disproportionately low non-white make-up (9 percent) of public school teachers in Nevada.

For Steven Horsford, achieving compromises with Republicans on mild education reforms has not been difficult. It's in Horsford's own party — especially the super-majority Democratic Assembly — where Nevada's biggest barriers to meaningful education reform continue to reside.

In this quarter, it's always about higher taxes and never about action for the kids they shout about.

Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst and Steven Miller is the vice president for policy at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.