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Schooling Kenny Guinn

by Ken Ward

Ten Things Nevada's New Governor
Should Do About Education.

enny Guinn was elected governor on promises to restore order in Nevada’s classrooms. His TV advertisements talked about accountability and boot camps. Voters bought Guinn’s line that his experience as an educator and administrator made him uniquely qualified to improve our public schools. Or does that make him part of the problem?

Now that the campaign rhetoric is a distant echo, it’s time to find out. Can Mr. Establishment actually muster any bold initiatives and true reform? The fact is, Guinn’s campaign was painfully short on specifics, and sounded suspiciously like his predecessor’s.

It’s too early to know whether Guinn will be Bob Miller, Part Deux. Since the Republican did not get the endorsement of Miller’s pals at the Nevada State Education Association, it’s possible that he won’t be a slave to union solidarity. Maybe, just maybe, Guinn will follow in the footsteps of reform-oriented governors such as Wisconsin’s Tommy Thompson, Michigan’s John Engler, North Carolina’s James Hunt and Texas’ George W. Bush.

The path toward reform, however, is a tortuous one. The public is conditioned to believe that educational excellence can only be achieved with more money. Already, bill drafts calling for tens of millions of dollars in new spending are piling up at the Legislature. And the NSEA’s lapdogs in the Assembly, where Democrats hold a 28-14 advantage, are licking their chops.

New schemes include additional money for "at-risk’’ programs and more cash for schools deemed "inadequate’’ in state tests. Another $22 million has been proposed for "professional development’’ of teachers. Millions more will be sought for fully funded remedial summer school.

There’s just one problem, of course. There’s no money. State revenues for 1998 are lagging behind projections, so the 1999 Legislature won’t have a surplus to play with.

In this situation, Gov. Guinn can do what knee-jerk Republicans have traditionally done: Get out the veto pen and just say no. Or he could cannibalize other state programs to placate the NSEA juggernaut—a tempting option for a former school superintendent.

Or, he could stand up for principle and break the spending cycle by embracing new policies that would cost less, not more.

Herewith are 10 reform-minded initiatives that would do precisely that. Some of the ideas are contained in the state Republican Party platform while others have been implemented successfully around the country. In each case, they are a departure from business as usual in Nevada.

1. Recalculate Class-Size Reduction

he state’s single most expensive education program is the one reducing pupil-teacher ratios to 16-to-1 in first through third grades. The Miller administration’s pet project has exacerbated Nevada’s teacher shortage, while failing to address the fact that fast-growing school districts simply do not have enough classrooms to carry out the program. Instead of 16-to-1, many classes are doubled up at 32-to-2. National studies have shown that such pairings erode whatever benefits may be gained from class-size reduction.

In fact, after more than six years and hundreds of millions of dollars, Nevada’s class-size reduction effort has yet to demonstrate any substantive impact on academic performance. It’s time to end this boondoggle.

Instead of focusing only on the early elementary grades, most educators would prefer an across-the-board effort. By using, say, a 25-to-1 teacher-pupil formula, schools could achieve lower class sizes all the way through 12th grade. Calculations for the Clark County School District show this ratio would cost $30 million less than the current program and end those doubled-up classes. A slightly higher ratio would save even more, if push comes to shove.

2. Overhaul Teacher
Standards and Pay

hile much has been written about woeful academic performance by students, little has been uttered about the competence of Nevada teachers. The two, of course, are inextricably connected.

Massachusetts made headlines this year when 59 percent of its prospective instructors flunked the state’s teacher proficiency test. Nevada has stayed out of the media spotlight by dumbing down its exam. Indeed, applicants can get half of the questions wrong and still receive a teaching license.

Once hired, these mediocre teachers enjoy the protection of tenure (after one year) and the benefit of annual raises. This one-size-fits-all union mentality is stultifying. By rewarding minimal competence, it is a de facto penalty on excellence. Is it any wonder that professionally oriented educators gravitate toward administrative jobs that pay better?

The National Education Association, which touts itself as an advocate of the best and brightest teachers, steadfastly resists merit pay. It is an irony that will inevitably crumble.

John Murphy, former superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., schools, puts it this way. "Age and time in the saddle is no longer relevant. Mastery is. Routine and mindless teacher and administrator evaluations must be replaced with finely calibrated procedures that enjoy the confidence of educators and the community.’’ And it doesn’t take $22 million in additional "in-service training’’ days, widely regarded as a joke, to do that.

3. Tighten Standards
for Students

he Nevada Education Reform Act of 1997 took the first steps toward accountability with a statewide testing program. The results showed 23 schools were "inadequate,’’ meaning that 40 percent or more of their students scored in the bottom quartile of national averages on all four test batteries. That has prompted the Department of Education to quadruple its budget request for remediation funding, and has spawned a proposal for fully paid summer school to help youngsters catch up.

Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno, has questioned the value of such programs. Better, he says, to address pupils’ shortcomings by demanding more on the front end. Chicago’s schools have demonstrated that point. When that city’s troubled schools raised their academic standards, classroom performance and attendance went up.

Nevada’s educrats are dabbling with this approach, but ever so limply. The state Board of Education patted itself on the back for raising the passing scores for the high school graduation test for math—from 61 percent to a whopping 64 percent. In the real world, that’s still a failing grade.

One way to avoid competency problems in high school is to ensure that students master the material in earlier grades. Unfortunately, the Nevada Council to Establish Academic Standards has declined to articulate specific grade-by-grade benchmarks. And the reading standards are chock-full of the whole-language poppycock that has sent literacy rates plummeting.

If Gov. Guinn wants to reverse Nevada’s downward trends, he can look to two fellow governors who have worked to elevate standards. The two states—North Carolina and Texas—posted the best student achievement gains in math and reading between 1992 and 1996. They established rigorous grade-by-grade assessments through the eighth grade . . . and they didn’t settle for passing scores of 64 percent. Nor, by the way, did they reduce class sizes.

4. Kill the School
-to-Careers Program

he title sounds nice and the concept may be laudable, but this program is the federal government’s Trojan Horse. Dazzled by the prospect of more funding, Nevada and other states are being sucked into a radical subversion of liberal arts education.

The stated philosophy of this program is to apply a European model to America. As early as elementary school, students are encouraged to identify careers (or they are tracked by the system) and their curriculum is tailored to those objectives. This central planning would ensure a steady flow of dutiful workers to, let’s say, casinos. But it wouldn’t do much to further individual expression or freedom of choice.

School-to-careers programs put the primary emphasis on functional attributes such as timeliness, neatness, courtesy and team-building. Critical thinking and the questioning of authority are not valued. Neither are honors classes or such esoteric studies as Latin or the fine arts.

If this program were truly voluntary, it may serve a worthwhile purpose. Indeed, it could be a useful adjunct to promising vocational education efforts. But as part of the Goals 2000 project, it’s a federally run scheme with compulsory aspirations. As such, the state GOP platform, which correctly maintains that education is a state concern, has called for Nevada to opt out.

This is not to say, however, that business has no role to play. In North Carolina leaders from the private sector helped educators establish organizational systems that increased local accountability. In Texas executives were appointed to key policymaking positions, such as the chair of the State Board of Education.

Alas, Nevada’s elected board of education is stacked with professional educators—a questionable confluence of administrative and legislative agendas rife with conflict of interest. There may not be much that a governor can do about that, except to use the bully pulpit to keep this board honest.

5. Support Charters

evada’s charter school law is a joke. It is rated ninth weakest of 30 states by the Washington-based Center for Education Reform. It is so restrictive that just one of the autonomous schools has opened—the I Can Do Anything Academy in Reno.

By contrast, Arizona has 400 charter campuses enrolling nearly 50,000 students, roughly 6 percent of the total pupil population. Nationwide, hundreds of new charters are opening every year. In a few places, they have failed, but that failure rate is less than 2 percent. In many more locales, charters have attracted strong interest from families, rich and poor, who are fed up with their government schools. It’s all about choice.

But while charters are designed to liberate pupils from bureaucratic bondage and encourage educational innovation, Nevada’s law does the opposite. The schools must operate under the local district’s bargaining contract—a curiously onerous clause in a right-to-work state. The law also prohibits existing public schools from "going charter,’’ as is done in dozens of other states. In light of the regulatory labyrinth that has been constructed, it’s a wonder that we even have one charter campus.

Clearly, this must change. Gov. Guinn has said he supports charters. The question is: What kind?

6. Embrace Vouchers

o truly achieve universal school choice, some sort of voucher program appears essential. Yes, we’ve heard the tired arguments about church-state separation and public money for parochial gain. Somehow, though, that didn’t stop the G.I. Bill from sending veterans to private universities. And it hasn’t kept Milwaukee from giving 6,200 students annual grants of $4,900 to attend private schools. The legality of that program has been upheld by both Wisconsin's Supreme Court and the U. S. Supreme Court.

Of all states, Nevada should welcome any opportunity to relieve its crowded public schools from a relentless crush of new students. Bond issues are problematic and the state is hardly in a position to help build new campuses. Arizona, Pennsylvania and Minnesota have, or are considering, tax-credit programs to make the private option affordable to lower- and middle-class families. One plan is even structured to leave a residual percentage of funds for public schools when a student leaves.

Whatever the formula, the concept is simple: Take the local district’s per-pupil allocation, give it to the taxpayer and let him or her decide how to spend it. This terrifies the public school monopoly. So its loyal servants, good Democrats like Bob Miller and Bill Clinton, vehemently oppose vouchers (but then send their own well-heeled children off to private academies). We’d like to think that Mr. Guinn wouldn’t buy into that duplicity.

7. Privatize and Economize

chools (presumably) are in the business of education. They’re not bus companies or landscapers or restaurateurs. Yet roughly half the payroll at Nevada’s largest school districts is filled with people who don’t even work in the classroom.

For pure absurdity, check out the sprawling Clark County School District. When a lawn sprinkler head breaks in, say, Mesquite, the school must call in a repair order to district headquarters 90 miles away in Las Vegas. There, a district maintenance crew is dispatched. "It becomes a $200 trip,’’ says Assemblywoman Kathy Von Tobel, R-Las Vegas. "You might call it Soviet-style planning.’’

The bureaucrats’ solution would be to set up maintenance shops throughout the district. The real answer is to get out of the business altogether. With union contracts, restrictive work rules and benefits that surpass the private sector, these ancillary services are eating away at the instructional budget. In fact, the salaries of non-teaching personnel are growing at a faster rate than those of teachers. And that has helped to drive district operating costs through the roof.

These cushy conditions and union hegemony make this a difficult empire to topple. But a cost-benefit comparison for John Q. Taxpayer could prove enlightening. Gov. Guinn might even find an ally in the National Education Association. An analysis by the teachers union says that Nevada faces the biggest budget shortfall of any state, likely to generate 18 percent less tax revenue than projected over the next eight years.

8. Rethink the Prevailing Wage

ere’s another Quixotic challenge. As public works projects, school construction must abide by the Byzantine edicts of the prevailing wage. In theory, that wage is set by an accurate cross-section of public and private jobs, union and non-union. In practice, it involves a call to the local union hall, where an inflated wage is plucked from the air.

Contractors in Las Vegas, speaking candidly, say that the prevailing wage on Clark County School District projects meets, and sometimes beats, the pay offered on the biggest union jobs at the Strip’s megaresorts. In essence, the prevailing wage has become a project labor agreement. And contractors say that translates into pay that is as much as 30 percent over a true prevailing wage.

As it rushes to push projects through the pipeline, Clark County’s bond oversight committee has brushed this issue aside. And now that voters have approved a 10-year rollover of the current tax rate to provide a $2.5 billion windfall, no one’s going to count pennies.

Attacking the prevailing wage law is a biennial exercise at the Legislature. If it clears the Senate, it is invariably killed in the Democratic controlled Assembly. So repeal is not likely. But it seems reasonable to expect that at least the spirit and letter of the law would be observed and monitored.

If Gov. Guinn wants to be truly innovative, he might consider getting school districts out of the construction business altogether. Since private schools are consistently built cheaper and quicker than public campuses, why not allow private companies to do all the work? Firms would finance and build the facilities, and then turn them over to the district at an agreed-upon price. Lease-back arrangements or other incentives could also be tried.

9. Reward Performance,
Not Incompetence

oday’s holistic educators are more concerned about self-esteem than achievement: It’s better to feel good than to be accountable.

Such folks worry that the term "inadequate’’ might hurt the feelings of schools that posted egregiously bad scores in state exams. State Board of Education member Bill Hanlon (also a teacher) is fond of saying that testing is like weighing a pig: Repeatedly weighing the porker doesn’t make it smarter or fatter. How apt.

Now some soft-headed lawmakers want to award standard diplomas to "special needs’’ children, even as their passage requirements are lowered. Taken to its illogical conclusion, that will allow illiterates to pass the high school proficiency exam.

Perhaps the most bogus idea comes in the form of a $2.6 million request to retain existing staffs of at-risk schools. While the premise sounds noble, it is backwards. Many of these schools are the very same campuses that scored at the bottom of the statewide Terra Nova tests. Could it be that the instructors had a hand in that?

While pouring ever-more money into deficient schools, there is no systematic program to fix what’s going wrong. This is tantamount to drilling a hole in a leaky boat in hopes of emptying out the water.

In stark contrast, North Carolina and Texas boosted their scholastic standing by bestowing monetary rewards on schools that improved their scores. Both states carefully designed formulas that took socio-economic differences into account while compiling reports that group and compare scores. Both keep close scrutiny of students not taking the tests. And both enacted procedures to remove principals whose schools recorded continuing levels of poor performance.

In neither case did the states increase per-pupil spending to achieve these goals. Nor did they require more teachers with advanced degrees or more years of experience.

To his credit, Gov. Guinn is studying these models. It would be nice if lawmakers did the same before clamoring to throw good money after bad.

10. Cutting the
Old School Tie

t’s axiomatic that the problems with education begin at the colleges of education. And in Nevada that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Despite having two universities that maintain virtually open admissions policies, the state has the lowest matriculation rate in the nation. So many students who do move on to the four-year institutions are so marginal academically that 45 percent of them must enroll in remedial English or math courses.

Meanwhile, the university system has embarked on an unprecedented spending binge. Almost $200 million in building projects are under way in Southern Nevada. And the regents are seeking a 45 percent spending increase at the same time the state is scrambling to trim expenses to avoid a budget shortfall.

The Ivory Tower’s cognitive dissonance is on display at the colleges of education. For decades, Nevada’s K-12 schools have had to recruit teachers from out of state because our own universities could not come close to meeting the demand. Despite prodding and pleading, the colleges steadfastly resisted any calls to expand or accelerate their training programs. To be fair, the Legislature co-conspired by throwing up procedural roadblocks designed by the hyper-protective NSEA. And Bob Miller, the self-anointed Education Governor, apparently was too busy giving speeches about class-size reduction to get involved.

Other states have managed to break this bureaucratic logjam. Connecticut allows college grads to take an eight-week summer course and exam that qualifies them to teach. New York has launched a similar program. Both bypass their state’s education schools.

While the universities in Reno and Las Vegas slumber, the Community College of Southern Nevada has boosted its teacher-prep enrollment from 80 to 570 in the past year. If the universities don’t awaken soon, they may discover they’ve become irrelevant. Clark County Superintendent of Schools Brian Cram is said to be in line for the job of taking CCSN’s training venture to the next level.

CCSN has truly been a bright beacon in a sea of mediocrity. It is the only school in the state that seems to be connecting with the educational needs of its citizens—as its phenomenal growth rate demonstrates. What’s more, the community college has done more with less money than any other sector of higher education. It has partnered with K-12 schools to erect joint campuses and state-of-the-art computer labs that are used around the clock. It offers college credits to high school students. It has actively recruited foreign students, putting Nevada on the global map while generating premium tuition revenue.

Unfortunately, old-style thinking hangs on in the Legislature. Porkbarrel lawmakers such as Assemblyman Richard Perkins, D-Henderson, continue to push ill-conceived pet projects such as "Henderson State College’’—as if another layer of higher education was needed when anyone with a 2.0 GPA and a pulse can get into our state universities.

The collegiate edifice complex makes good politics, but it’s economically untenable. If Gov. Guinn wants bang for the buck, he should join his fellow chief executives in promoting the new Governors Open University System, an Internet-based school that begins offering classes this year. The venture is supported by the Western Governors Association (which includes Nevada) and will enable students to earn degrees through computer-based correspondence courses.

No, it ain’t Hooterville Tech. It’s much better. NJ

Ken Ward is a free-lance journalist who writes about education, politics and development issues. He lives in Las Vegas.

News to Use
Education Commission of the States
www.ecs.org

Center for Education Reform
www.edreform.com

Education Excellence Network
www.edexcellence.net

Ken Ward
kenricward@juno.com


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