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Students stand in the hallway March 21, 2017, at Richard C. Priest Elementary School in North Las Vegas. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

UPDATED: 5:55 p.m. May 18, 2017

The Senate Education Committee voted 6-1 on Thursday to pass SB178, which implements a “weighted” school funding formula that will give schools an extra $1,200 to support certain low-achieving students.

Republican Sen. Don Gustavson was the lone opposition.

The bill was further refined after Wednesday’s joint hearing. Rather than requiring schools to spend at least 70 percent of the “weight” funding on direct student services and allowing them up to 30 percent on professional development and teacher bonuses, the ratio will be 90 percent and 10 percent.

Earlier in the day, a budget subcommittee voted to reject an earlier governor recommendation to spend $72 million on expanding the Zoom Schools and Victory Schools program. That frees up the money to be used for the weights, although Education Committee Chairman Mo Denis said more could be added to the project.

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A cross section of Nevada education leaders signaled support Wednesday for a “weighted” school funding formula that would give an extra $1,200 per child to the neediest students in the most underperforming schools.

During a joint meeting of the Senate and Assembly education committees, Democratic Sen. Mo Denis unveiled a conceptual amendment to SB178 that includes a scaled-back version of the much-anticipated weighted funding formula, which lawmakers have deemed too costly to fully implement this session.

The proposed compromise: Identify students whose test scores are in the bottom 25 percent, and then narrow that pool even more by prioritizing the children who are learning English or who receive free and reduced-price lunch. That group would be eligible to receive the extra $1,200 per-pupil allocation, but because funding currently is limited to $72 million over the next biennium, students attending lower-performing schools would get first dibs on the money.

“The premise of the stakeholder conversation around the funding formula was that in order to have the greatest impact on student achievement with the new money available this session, we would need to prioritize the lowest-performing students first because there isn’t enough funding to serve all students,” Denis said.

The amended bill would not dismantle Zoom and Victory schools, which receive additional money because they serve large populations of students learning English or living in poverty. Students attending Zoom and Victory schools — key tenets of Gov. Brian Sandoval’s education reforms —would not be eligible for the weighted funding because of the services they already receive through the existing programs.

While Zoom and Victory schools have shown success boosting student achievement, the programs have been criticized by some because they don’t help vulnerable students attending other schools. The weighted funding proposal aims to fix that by transitioning to an approach that allots extra money to at-risk students rather than specific schools.

The schools would receive the additional per-pupil funding, but they would be required to put it toward evidence-based services proven to enhance student learning, such as a new reading center, after-school program or pre-Kindergarten program.

“This is a step in the right direction,” said John Vellardita, executive director of the Clark County Education Association. “Our educators will like this because it will give them the appropriate resources and tools to do what they do best.”

If lawmakers approve the weighted funding plan, it stands to benefit 30,000 students statewide over the next biennium given the $72 million set aside. That’s the money Sandoval had budgeted for the expansion of Zoom and Victory schools, but it’s not enough to cover the cost of applying weighted funding to all students identified under the new proposal.

State Superintendent Steve Canavero said as many as 54,000 students rank in the bottom quartile academically and are learning English or receive free or reduced-price lunches. Of those students, 32,000 to 35,000 attend schools with one-, two- or three-star rankings based on the Nevada School Performance Framework.

The extra per-pupil money would flow to students attending those lower-ranked schools first as a matter of equity — an approach that earned the support of organizations such as Educate Nevada Now and the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities.

“We believe this approach as identified in SB178 and the conceptual amendment is more aligned with with an equity approach as opposed to an equality approach,” said Nancy Brune, the Guinn Center’s executive director.

It’s unclear whether the Legislature will be able to scrounge up more funding to put toward the weights. Two people who spoke Wednesday in support of the plan implied that the Legislature should fund the weights instead of the proposed Education Savings Account program. Sandoval also has indicated that he’s in favor of putting a significant portion of the nearly $96 million in additional revenue the state expects to receive over the next two years toward the weights.

The Clark and Washoe County school districts threw their support behind the amended bill, as did the state teachers union and a number of other organizations, such as Nevada Succeeds, HOPE For Nevada and the Latin Chamber of Commerce. No one opposed the plan during testimony Wednesday.

Denis noted the plan is the outgrowth of discussions involving school districts, teachers, parents and lawmakers. “The product of our work is both thoughtful and practical,” he said.

The Legislature hopes to fully fund the weights by 2022, with gradual expansions over the next few bienniums.

The amended bill needs to clear a vote by the education committees before moving forward.

Feature photo: Students stand in the hallway March 21, 2017, at Richard C. Priest Elementary School in North Las Vegas. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

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