CARSON CITY, Nev. — Parents balanced babies on their hips and protest signs in their hands at a Monday rally railing against spending cuts and education reforms outlined in Gov. Brian Sandoval's $5.8 billion proposed budget.
Sharon Miller of Spanish Springs and her three school-age daughters wrote their concerns in crayon and taped them to plastic baseball bats they hoisted high among a crowd of about 300 protesters, many of them Washoe County School District teachers on spring break.
Miller said she and other parent volunteers are becoming more vital as teachers struggle to meet testing deadlines and manage larger class sizes on smaller budgets. "I spend a lot of my time repairing books that are falling apart and teaching kids handwriting," she said.
The demonstration outside the legislative building coincided with scheduled hearings on major policy bills sought by the Republican governor dealing with K-12 education and counter proposals pushed by Democrats.
Earlier in the day, the Senate Finance Committee heard SB2, a perpetual measure pushed by Sen. Michael Schneider, D-Las Vegas, that calls for Nevada to fund education at the national, per-pupil average.
The bill calculates that Nevada's per-pupil spending, including state and local money, is $1,965 below the national average. SB2 would require taking $1.6 billion from the state general fund and placing it in the distributive school account.
Schneider has sponsored a similar bill for years without success.
"When I entered this building 10 sessions ago, those kids who were 1 year old at that time, I failed them," Schneider told the committee. "Half of them didn't graduate. We failed them."
Another bill, SB372 sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, seeks to wrestle voter-approved money from Sandoval's budget to augment education.
Voters in Washoe and Clark counties approved a 2008 advisory question to raise room taxes by 3 percent to fund education, and the increase was approved by lawmakers in 2009. Under the measure, the increased revenue was to be used to help plug a state general fund shortfall before reverting to education in 2011.
Sandoval's budget proposal continues putting the money, estimated at $221 million, in the general fund until 2014.
Under Horsford's bill, the money would have to be used for academic endeavors, such as early-learning, after-school and summer programs, and to give students who drop out of high school another avenue to achieve a high school equivalency diploma.
Members of the Assembly passed two bills that would change provisions about teacher probation — the period when a new teacher is an at-will employee and can more easily be fired.
AB225 would extend the probationary period if a teacher receives an unsatisfactory evaluation for two consecutive years. AB229 extends the probationary period for new teachers from two to three years; it also calls for school districts to use a more nuanced, four-tier evaluation rubric for teachers, and sets up a performance pay system that rewards highly effective teachers.
The reforms are spearheaded by Democrats, who say the bills will help root out underperforming teachers. But several Democrats voted against the measures, siding with the Nevada State Education Association's position that the bills don't provide enough due process for teachers facing a firing.
Other bills lawmakers considered Monday include AB554, which would create A through F letter grade report cards for schools. The bill also targets "social promotion" by barring third graders from moving to fourth if they fail a reading exam.
Based on a successful model from Florida, proponents say AB554 would improve transparency and prod schools to improve their programs. Opponents countered that the system would be expensive and could oversimplify the many factors that shape a school's overall performance.
A committee also heard much debate on AB548, which would replace elected members of the Nevada Board of Education with governor appointees. The bill implements a recommendation from the Blue Ribbon Education Task Force, which seeks to simplify a complicated organizational structure within the Department of Education and create a "single point of responsibility" in the governor.
Proponents say data from across the country shows a correlation between a streamlined organization and academic achievement.
But opponents say it could politicize the department of education and take away the connection community members feel with their locally elected officials.
Lawmakers late Monday were still reviewing reform bills.
Teachers who attended the noon rally said they took time from their spring break to share their plight with legislators, but added it's difficult to advocate for themselves between grading papers and working weekends.
Legislators and speakers from union groups told school personnel Monday to drop their soft classroom voices and keep making a clamor about cuts that would lower their pay and have them contribute more to their retirement plans.
"You're not screaming loud enough," said Rusty McAllister, president of the Professional Firefighters of Nevada association. "You're not talking loud enough."