Teacher-turned-gubernatorial candidate Chris Giunchigliani drew on her classroom experience to craft a 14-page plan promising to overhaul the state’s public education system by improving funding, increasing teacher pay and reducing what she called unnecessary testing.
The special education teacher and Clark County commissioner unveiled her education policy platform Wednesday — during national Teacher Appreciation Week — at an elementary school library near downtown Las Vegas. A progressive Democrat who said she wants to be known as the Education Governor, she credited Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval several times for work he’s been doing on education the past eight years.
“He’s trying to lay a framework so we’re moving forward,” she said. “He took some risks and did try to focus on education.”
Giunchigliani is the last of the four leading candidates running for governor to release an education agenda. But she said her proposal has been months in the making, starting with a listening tour in August where she gathered feedback from parents, teachers, school board members, business leaders and students.
“I walked their walk,” she said, “but I wanted to make sure I understood what they thought was important in a governor.”
Giunchigliani addresses children first in her plan, calling for an end to large class sizes by setting student-to-teacher ratios for all grade levels, not just lower grades. A supporter of class-size reduction legislation as an Assembly member in the 1990s, she acknowledged the system isn’t working perfectly and districts are frequently seeking “variances” — permission to go around the required ratios.
But she still believes in the underlying concept.
“The reason parents put children in private schools, parochial schools, is class size. So why shouldn’t [public school children] be treated the same way?” she said. “If it takes a little bit of time, I’d rather do it right, than just try to say I accomplished this. I’m done with those kinds of things.”
She also wants more behavioral health services available for students, standardized discipline guidelines to prevent discrimination, more workforce and higher-education partnerships and less “needless and harmful testing.”
Giunchigliani noted that Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse called last session for an audit to weed out unnecessary tests, which she said can breed anxiety among students and force educators into a situation where they’re only teaching to the test.
“It doesn’t take money to do that,” she said about rooting out redundant exams. “It just takes common sense.”
Giunchigliani also intends to create a timeline for implementing the weighted-funding formula — the long-awaited concept that provides additional funding based on each student’s needs and would replace a 50-year-old funding model. The Legislature has taken baby steps toward that method, but the hefty price tag has rendered full implementation impossible so far.
“We need to finish that,” she said, although she didn’t set a timeline in her agenda document. “Then you need additional dollars on top of that.”
More money for students is only part of the equation. Another tenet of Giunchigliani’s plan involves paying teachers better wages and providing improved retirement benefits for support staff who work alongside licensed professionals and students in schools.
She wants to fully fund an incentive program for teachers who work in Title I schools, which have larger numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Clark County School District took heat earlier this year when it offered incentive pay to teachers willing to transfer to those schools but excluded educators already working there.
Her plan says any incentive program tied to working in Title 1 schools should include both existing and transferring teachers.
On school choice, Giunchigliani, former president of the Nevada State Education Association, took a position on Education Savings Accounts that aligns with the teachers’ union. She wants the program entirely removed from the books.
Current law allows for the voucher-style school choice program, which allows parents a grant of public money to support the cost of private school tuition or other qualified educational expenses, but the Democrat-controlled Legislature has declined to fund it. Removing it from law could mean it would be a less-prominent subject of debate in future legislative sessions.
She also wants to address school safety concerns, taking cues from a task force Sandoval convened that’s been meeting to develop statewide objectives. Although she flatly opposes the idea of arming teachers, she said she’s open to other options, particularly ones about improving building security while still allowing the free flow of movement for school activities.
Having officers at every school is “very very expensive. But so is the loss of a child’s life,” she observed. “Having eyes and ears, adequate walkie talkies and buzz coms that actually can work — all of those factors actually help teachers and administrators of schools far more than having an armed guard.”
Unlike other gubernatorial candidates, who mostly highlighted big-ticket education plans, Giunchigliani’s platform also includes a host of smaller goals. Among them:
Giunchigliani didn’t want to put a price tag Wednesday on how much her total plan would cost to implement.
“I think it would be irresponsible for me to put a dollar figure to this because every district is a little different,” she said.
But it’s clear more revenue will be crucial if Giunchigliani wants to see many of her education plans become a reality.
Giunchigliani’s answer is similar to what her primary opponent, Steve Sisolak, has proposed: Ensuring marijuana and room tax dollars originally slated for education are directed back to that purpose; adjusting property taxes and the tax cap on commercial properties; and creating a rainy day fund for education.
Giunchigliani said she is not opposed to making cuts. If elected governor, she’ll be able to go through a detailed budget that’s currently being drafted by Sandoval and make her own modifications. Sandoval’s staff told Nevada Newsmakers last week that the budget could be as much as $500 million more than the existing, $8.2 billion, two-year budget.
“I’m a budget hawk,” she said. “I have to go through and take a look at where did they add things that are not priorities to me. Education is a priority so that’s how I’ll start with my funding. And then you go into health care, your mental health, those are the main pillars of where I’m going to be looking.”
As a wave of teacher unrest grips the nation, she also acknowledged a situation that money can’t necessarily fix — the constant pressure placed on educators nowadays.
“With the throwing and pushing of things down on our teachers these days, they’ve lost an opportunity to really have that kinder, gentler moment where you can really spend time … to really nurture them,” she said, referring to teachers’ relationship with students.
Disclosure: NSEA, Steve Sisolak and Chris Giunchigliani have donated to The Nevada Independent. You can see a full list of donors here.