Graduation requirements. Teacher performance evaluations. School star ratings. Those are some of the policies and regulations determined or approved by the Nevada Board of Education.
If you’re unfamiliar with the state board and its duties, you’re not alone. Since it was restructured by the Nevada Legislature nearly a decade ago, the board has largely flown under the radar of the masses. But its policies and the direction it gives to districts can affect schools and students across the state.
“There are so many people who have misconceptions about what we do,” says member Felicia Ortiz, who has served on the board since 2016. Ortiz says it boils down “accountability, policy and regulation.”
The board, for example, sets the standards for how schools are evaluated and rated. Same for educators. The board sets regulations regarding graduation requirements, such as the number of credits needed or the types of diplomas offered by the state. They have also set what can be described as aspirational goals for things like social worker-to-student ratios. These goals are not mandatory because the board does not control state funding levels for education, meaning they cannot provide monetary resources to help schools accomplish said goals. The board’s financial power is largely limited to setting priorities for who receives certain grants or scholarships. That said, members can — and often do — advocate on education issues and work with state legislators on bills.
Eleven people sit on the board. Four are elected by voters — one from each congressional district. The other seven are appointed by the governor or various public bodies. The board is currently chaired by Elaine Wynn.
All four elected positions are up this year, but only two will appear on Nevada ballots. In District 2, which covers Northern Nevada, Katie Coombs ran unopposed. Coombs is a columnist, author, motivational speaker and radio personality, according to her website. In District 3, which covers the southernmost parts of Clark County, including Henderson and Boulder City, incumbent Felicia Ortiz won outright in the nonpartisan primary by securing more than 50 percent of votes. Ortiz runs a project management consulting firm.
Here’s a look at the two races on the ballot:
District 1: Angelo Casino vs. Tim Hughes
Two political newcomers faceoff in District 1 where Robert Blakely, who currently represents the district, did not seek reelection.
Angelo Casino is a sixth grade teacher at Somerset Academy Lone Mountain, a charter school overseen by the State Public Charter School Authority. Tim Hughes is a regional vice president at the education nonprofit TNTP (The New Teacher Project) and a former middle school teacher and principal.
Casino says he is running because he believes students and teachers lack a voice on the board: “It’s common sense. They need the teacher perspective.”
(The current board does include one current educator: Tamara Hudson, a Clark County School District special education teacher appointed by the Nevada Assembly.)
Hughes says his experience inside and outside the classroom, combined with his nonprofit work, have given him a well-rounded perspective that would serve the state board well. Students and student outcomes have been his central focus each step of his career, he added.
“Policymakers often have good intentions,” he said. “I believe they want what’s best, but they don’t always understand what the impact is on the person responsible for implementing the policy. I’ve worked at every layer of the system. I have experience and perspective on how policies work through each layer.”
He added, “Regardless of my position, I’ve kept students at the center.”
Hughes added that the board needs someone who is “ready to jump in on day one” on technical issues, like the star rating system, that may need to be addressed in light Covid-19’s impact. He says he hopes to focus on what types of support the Department of Education is providing.
“With the pandemic, it’ll be a tough several years with schools and districts. We need to make sure we are supporting schools. That’ll take a lot of thoughtful work and experienced work, to get them back on track.”
Casino identifies per-pupil funding, educator pay and testing as some of his policy priorities. He is a critic of the state’s standardized testing, which he says takes away valuable classroom time and provides no useful data. He believes individualized education plans are being used as a catchall for behavior issues that could be better addressed in other ways. He also believes schools should largely stop pushing kids onto the next grade if they are not academically ready.
“When our kids graduate high school, they need to be ready for college or to take on a trade so they can be successful if they choose not to go to college,” he says. “Our system now is: We hope our students go to college after grade 12. And if they don’t, we hope there’s a safety net on the bottom that can catch them. That’s not what it should be.”
Both Hughes and Casino have run for office before. Hughes narrowly lost to Blakely in 2016. Casino ran for Clark County Assessor in 2018 and the Board of Regents in 2016. Both times he was defeated during the primary.
Casino, Hughes and three others ran during the primary. Hughes received 37.7 percent of votes to Casino’s 24 percent.
Hughes has been endorsed by several unions and organizations, including the Clark County Education Association, Culinary Union and the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce.
District 4: Mark Newburn vs. Rene Cantu
Incumbent Mark Newburn in District 4 is seeking a third term on the Board of Education, but he faces a formidable challenge from Rene Cantu.
Newburn has spent 40 years working in the technology industry. He was first elected to the state board in 2012 and has served as vice president since 2016. He says the Great Recession inspired his original run for the office. He believes investing in education is crucial to diversifying the Nevada economy, and he has advocated for STEM education as a way to help. During the last two legislative sessions, Newburn co-authored two bills making computer science a core academic subject, meaning students must take it to graduate.
“We can be thought leaders,” said Newburn of serving on the Nevada Board of Education. “We can be a forum for whatever education issues there are. We are notorious for bringing that light down on inequities. It’s our job to be truth tellers, to say we are not doing a good job here.”
Newburn pointed to a recent forum on inequities faced by Black students as one example of additional issues the state board can and should try to address.
Newburn’s challenger, Rene Cantu is similarly focused on addressing inequities.
Cantu is the executive director of Jobs for Nevada Graduates (also known as J4NG and JAG Nevada), which targets vulnerable youth and helps them finish high school. He notes that the graduation rate for students in the program is 97.74 percent.
“This is taking students from the lowest academic quartile, with the highest absentee rates,” he says. “What this shows is the problem is not that kids can’t learn.”
Cantu believes that students just need the right resources and opportunities. He also believes the state’s low per-pupil funding plays a large part in that lack of resources and opportunities for students. Advocating for increased funding will be a priority if he’s elected, he says. So too will be pushing for equitable access to career and technical education programs, which he believes is an issue in both urban and rural areas of the state.
Cantu briefly served on the Clark County School Board, appointed to fill its District E seat for the five months in 2012 after a trustee resigned and relocated out of state.
Cantu narrowly prevailed in the primary, securing 35.8 percent of votes compared to Newburn’s 35.3 percent. A third candidate, Vincent Richardson received 28.8 percent of votes. Richardson has since endorsed Cantu.