- Associated Press - Saturday, May 16, 2015

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) - Nevada lawmakers met Saturday to finalize budgets for K-12 schools and decide how fully they are on board with Gov. Brian Sandoval’s ambitious plan to reinvest hundreds of millions of dollars into at-risk students.

Members of the Senate Finance and Assembly Ways and Means Committee held a special weekend meeting to pare down Sandoval’s education spending plan by about $100 million. The updated numbers will help Assembly leaders determine how big of a tax hike they’ll pursue over the final two weeks of the 120-day legislative session, and could help decide which “wish list” items might now become reality.

The state is expected to spend about $2.2 billion in general per-pupil schools funding over the next two years, plus money for special programs, while Sandoval’s entire proposed two-year state budget is $7.4 billion. He wants to raise or extend $1.1 billion in taxes to meet that goal.

Here are major decisions that were made Saturday:

EXPANDING FULL-DAY KINDERGARTEN

Lawmakers voted to put $36.5 million toward expanding full-day kindergarten to schools statewide. Kindergarten in Nevada is piecemeal, with some full-day programs that are free, others that are tuition-based and still others that are half-day.

Schools could still offer half-day kindergarten classes in addition to a full-day program, if they choose.

EASING UP CLASS-SIZE REDUCTION

Lawmakers voted to raise the required student-teacher ratio by one student, to 17:1 for students in first and second grade and 20:1 for third-grade classrooms.

The change means the state will spend about $307 million over the next few years to keep class sizes low in early grades. That’s less than the $350 million Gov. Brian Sandoval planned for based on the old ratio of 16:1 and 19:1.

The committee wants to spend the extra money to raise general school support by $40 per student per year, and any leftovers would supply career and technical education programs.

DOUBLING ZOOM, CREATING VICTORY SCHOOLS

Lawmakers voted to double spending on the Zoom Schools program, which gives extra money to schools with a high population of English language learners. Funding will be $100 million over two years, up from $50 million in its first two years.

The state has about 76,000 English language learners, up from 71,000 one year ago.

The panel also voted to allocate $50 million for a new Victory Schools initiative aimed at schools in Nevada’s 20 poorest ZIP codes. Similar to Zoom Schools, Victory Schools could use extra funding to provide free pre-kindergarten, a summer academy or other services.

TRIMMING ANTI-BULLYING, LAPTOPS

Amid concerns that the state would have trouble quickly hiring an army of social workers and mental health professionals for schools, lawmakers decided to scale back their ambitions on the governor’s anti-bullying program. His budget called for $36 million to hire a social worker or similar professional for every 250 students, but the committee approved less than half that amount of money.

The initiative will now serve about 140 schools in its first year and 280 in its second. A companion bill, SB504, establishes a statewide anti-bullying office and requires school administrators to respond more quickly to reports of bullying.

The committee also cut a proposed technology program, “Nevada Ready 21,” by more than half. Lawmakers designated $20 million, rather than $43 million, to the program that offers technology training and laptops to middle school students.

APPROVING “READ BY 3”

Members of the money committee voted unanimously to allocate $27.2 million to the governor’s “Read by 3” literacy initiative. Schools that create a plan on how to help struggling students learn to read by third grade could apply for a grant from the pot of money.

State officials say about 145 schools would be participating in the Read by 3 grant program by its second year.

MORE FUNDING FOR SPECIAL EDUCATION

Lawmakers approved a plan to boost funding for special education students by $25 million. The money is part of an effort to transition from a 1970s-era funding model toward a weighted system that would allocate twice as much per-pupil funding for students with disabilities compared with other students. Nevada has about 54,000 special education students, and they account for about 12 percent of the state’s total enrollment.

The panel also gave the green light to another $10 million for the more than 12,000 Nevada students considered gifted and talented.

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