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Big Needs, Little Steps

Nevada Lawmakers
Cower in NSEA's Box

by Ken Ward

s the 1999 Legislature convened in Carson City, lawmakers had every reason to take decisive action on education. Years of misguided and mush-minded school initiatives had come home to roost. Voluminous reports newly released by Education Week and the American Legislative Exchange Council issued scathing assessments of academic attainment in the Silver State.

A few of the low-lights:

  • Though $400 million has been pumped into class-size reduction in grades 1-3, Nevada's overall pupil-per-teacher ratio remains seventh highest in the nation. Meantime, our fourth-graders-graduates of smaller class sizes-ranked a lackluster 31st in the nation on national tests.
  • While record amounts of money are being spent on remedial programs, the number of schools offering advanced placement programs has fallen by 11 percent-an astonishing statistic for a state that's built dozens of new high school campuses in the past two decades.
  • Nevada holds the dubious distinction of being one of just three states with "incomplete'' curriculum standards. It also lags in innovation, having just one charter school at a time when 1,200 operate across the country.
  • The state received a "D" for the low percentage of funding it dedicates to instruction. More than 40 percent is gobbled up by non-educational and administrative overhead.

So what did the Legislature do about all this? Well . . . not much.

But it wasn't for lack of trying. State Sen. Maurice Washington introduced a flurry of reform-oriented bills that would have launched a voucher program, instituted merit pay for teachers and empowered families to select which schools their children attend.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio also talked a good game. He affirmed his commitment to the accountability program enacted in 1997 and fought efforts to dismember or dilute it.

Alas, the lobbying leviathan known as the Nevada State Education Association (NSEA) kept its grip on the Assembly, where the union's Democrat marionettes held a 28-14 advantage. So, instead of meaningful moves toward school choice and more rigorous academic standards, Nevadans can expect another two years of the same old same old.

Across the nation, states are realizing that the teacher union's agenda is educationally bankrupt. From Texas to North Carolina, improvements are occurring in classrooms because lawmakers are demanding to know "how" money will be spent before they talk about "how much.''

"There is no immediately evident correlation between conventional measures of educational inputs such as expenditures per pupil and teachers salaries, and education outputs, such as average scores on standardized tests,'' write John S. Berry and Rea S. Hederman in "A Report Card on American Education.''

Their statistically rich study, published last December by the American Legislative Exchange Council, provided state-by-state comparisons on hundreds of scholastic benchmarks over the past 20 years. Looking at Nevada they found, for instance, that while per-pupil expenditures rose 40 percent (in constant, inflation-adjusted dollars) our SAT scores dropped 2.6 percent. And last year, only 14 percent of our fourth-graders tested at or above the proficiency level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, ranking Nevada 31st in the nation.

This report, readily available to Nevada's lawmakers, apparently went right down the memory hole.

And still the bad news kept coming. By the time the session was drawing to a close, the state's educational program got yet another black eye. Even after repeated attempts, 14 percent of Clark County's high school seniors still couldn't pass the math portion of the statewide proficiency exam-meaning they were not eligible for a diploma. And judging by the fourth-graders' dismal NAEP scores, Nevadans can pretty well figure things aren't going to get much better.

The knee-jerk response from Assemblyman Wendell Williams and his fellow Democrats lording over the Assembly Education Committee was to arbitrarily lower the passing score on the high school test. That vote stood for about 24 hours until the panel reversed itself under a glare of bad publicity. Instead, lawmakers agreed to pony up an additional $300,000 for summer remediation classes and yet more chances at the test.

Tennis, Anyone?

The Legislature's surreal and squishy approach to education was, at times, mirrored in the governor's office. Kenny Guinn campaigned on a platform that supported charter schools. And for that, the Republican was denied the NSEA endorsement.

But though unshackled from the union that gave Bob Miller his marching orders, Guinn was reluctant to cut loose. Indeed, his most noteworthy K-12 initiative was to incorporate $170 million in class-size reduction funds into the overall distributive school account. This was a logical move, and may yield more flexible use of the funds at the local level, but it's hardly the kind of thing that brings the positive press that reformist governors and their states are enjoying these days.

Unlike Miller, Guinn didn't even designate an education liaison to work with the Legislature. And this benign neglect was reflected in a curiously lackadaisical approach to the state's biggest single spending category.

Others were asleep at the switch as well. Elected members of the state Board of Education were virtually AWOL at key work sessions and committee hearings. Their absence merely magnified the clout of the NSEA and other assorted special interest groups.

A charter school bill, AB 348, might not have passed without the persistence of the Andre Agassi Foundation.

Lawmakers who had previously treated the reform concept with benign neglect at best suddenly became star-struck by the tennis player's interest. When Agassi beneficently offered to serve up $750,000, legislators volleyed back with a $600,000 state appropriation for his proposed charter campus. As fate would have it, the project is located in Williams' district, so the chairman was willing to make an exception to his oft-stated misgivings about charters.

On the other hand, lawmakers dismissed Washington's proposal to exempt charters from collective bargaining rules. His attempt to remove the capricious cap on the number of charters was also nixed. And while guidelines were expanded to allow the conversion of public schools into charters, AB 348 restricts such transitions to vocational and technical schools. Those, of course, are the most expensive programs to operate and, thus, the least likely candidates for conversion.

Even Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani, an NSEA stalwart, was repulsed by the brazen special-interest game played by Agassi and compliant lawmakers. The Las Vegas Democrat pointed out that no other charter initiative has received financial support from the state.

Other measures were similarly self-serving.

The NSEA jumped in with a bill that awards a 5 percent raise to teachers who are certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Wire service stories called the private Michigan-based program "tough'' and the union praised it as a step toward excellence. But others charge that board certification is little more than a backdoor pay hike, totally lacking in performance-based accountability.

And speaking of cashing in, the Legislature directed that school districts can buy out their workers' unused sick leave. That gives teachers and other unionized workers yet another club to wield at the bargaining table.

"The will is not present to reward or punish building-level educators for whether the kids are learning or not,'' sighs Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington.

Senate Concurrent Resolution 2 did urge Nevada's professional standards commission to raise the level of competence required for new teaching applicants. But this was legislative sleight-of-hand because lawmakers killed a bill that would have revamped the commission. As long as the panel is dominated by card-carrying NSEA members, the status will remain quo.

Nor did the Legislature do anything to fix Nevada's chronic disconnect between so-called professional development and performance-based licensing. While the state provides funding and time for in-service training (which is much derided and poorly attended), there is still no statewide program for assessing the classroom performance of new teachers. As such, Education Week's Quality Counts report gave the Silver State a "C" for improving teacher quality.

Then there was the "lawyer's full-employment act,'' officially known as AB 332. The bill subjects administrators to lawsuits if they don't properly jump through the NSEA-sanctioned hoops in appraising teachers. "There ought to be a reward for the principal who can still fire an incompetent teacher under this law,'' snorted one legislative analyst. Governor Guinn-an ex-school administrator-couldn't stomach it either and ultimately chose to veto the measure.

Just Saying No

A host of other special pleaders also managed to ram their pet projects through the Carson City sausage grinder.

Williams delivered the pork for his West Las Vegas district when AB 368 passed. The measure includes a provision that up to 2 percent of the Clark County School District's bond money be dedicated to reconstruction of an aging campus. That translates into as much as $50 million for a lone school project.

School districts across the state decried AB 521, but to no avail. The bill empowers teachers to throw misbehaving students out of class, and to set the terms for readmission. If a dispute ensues-which would seem inevitable-the school must convene a special committee to adjudicate the matter. "It seems awfully prescriptive and formal,'' noted one education observer. "You're going to end up having to file mandatory reports on every schoolyard scuffle.''

Earlier, Assemblywoman Barbara Cegavske found one of her bills hijacked by district lobbyists. AB 217 intended to give parents and the public the opportunity to review textbooks and supplemental materials prior to introduction into classrooms. But the Clark County School District got Wendel Williams' committee to amend the bill to state that such review can only occur after the books are purchased. The bill ended up dying.

There were a few genuine bright spots.

Lawmakers somehow got the gumption to toss out two NSEA plums. One would have loosened attendance rules for teachers. The other would have given veteran instructors time out of class to guide, counsel and observe rookie teachers. Districts were to have the option to implement the so-called mentoring program, but education analysts said no school system was in a financial position to do so.

Late in the session, Raggio rode to the rescue of legislation protecting textbook funds, which have been coveted by union bargainers. The bill, which had been killed, was quickly resurrected after the majority leader called a GOP caucus. Raggio also fenced off inter-session and summer school funding from NSEA poachers and Democrat hired hands.

Meantime, Clark County schools won permission to recruit a non-educator to succeed Brian Cram as superintendent. But even that was a compromise. All Southern Nevada Democrats on the Education Committee objected, and it was amended to say that if an outsider is hired, the second-in-command shall be a licensed educrat. Strangely, the measure does not apply to any other county.

Such statutory steps seemed puny when compared with the daunting educational challenges facing this state. And yet, Washington remains optimistic. Though his package of reform bills was defeated, he notes that the charter cap was modestly raised from six to 12. He also points out that charter school instructors were given the flexibility to teach additional hours outside of collective bargaining agreements.

"Each time we engage the issues, we gain more ground,'' Washington says. "We've put the education establishment on notice and it's rocked their boat. It says to the pundits that reform legislation is gaining momentum.''

Talk is Cheap

When it became clear early this year that the Miller administration had spent every dime in the state treasury, his fellow Democrats were bereft of any agenda for schools. That may have been a good thing.

The lack of capital didn't discourage some education advocates. Ray Bacon of the Nevada Manufacturers Association rattled off his goals in rapid-fire: reducing administrative overhead, creating productivity measures for districts, expanding opportunities for choice, aggressive pursuit of higher academic standards. None of these objectives need be big-ticket items.

But Bacon and other reformers were disheartened that the Assembly Democrats were so uninterested in thinking outside the NSEA-built box. By the end, Republicans seemed similarly lethargic.

"Other states are improving while we are talking about improving,'' Bacon groused.

Education Week backs up his perception, noting that the state also lags in testing those standards. And the 1999 Legislature did nothing to advance the long-range implementation schedule set two years ago.

Instead, the Democratic mantra drones on for higher per-pupil spending, smaller classes and better-paid instructors. It is circular logic divorced from results, according to Barry and Hederman.

"States performing exceptionally well on standardized tests such as Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin do not have extraordinarily high numbers of teachers per pupil or infrastructure per pupil,'' they write.

Meantime, Florida, a long-time backwater for public education, has registered the nation's greatest gains in SAT scores over the past 20 years. And yet it ranks toward the bottom of growth in per-pupil expenditures, teacher salaries and pupils per teacher.

If Nevada lawmakers ever get serious about improving K-12 education, they'll need to look beyond the NSEA's prodigious purse. Two states-Texas and Connecticut-have been recognized for focusing on accountability and performance.

In Texas, an evaluation system links teachers' appraisals to schoolwide test scores. Education schools lose their accreditation if too many of their graduates fail teacher licensing exams. And, as a carrot, cash awards are bestowed for exemplary student performance. Plus, students stuck in low-performing schools can transfer out.

In Connecticut, districts demonstrating sustained progress can receive state grants. The state also has toughened standards for teacher licensure.

Not coincidentally, both states' NAEP scores have been rising sharply while Nevada flounders and our dropout rate remains the worst in the nation. As if that weren't enough, it turns out that the highest scoring campus in Houston's giant school district is the KIPP Academy, one of 60 charters operating in Texas. KIPP's pupils, by the way, are 96 percent minority and 95 percent socioeconomically disadvantaged.

Hatching a New Deal

To be fair, Nevada did enact a reform program in 1997. Determined to live up to his billing as the "education governor,'' Miller wanted a legacy. And with a substantial assist from Raggio, the Education Reform Act was passed.

Education Week praised the state's inaugural efforts at setting curricular standards. Based on tests in selected grades, schools are now graded as "inadequate,'' "adequate'' or "outstanding.'' More subject areas will be covered in future years. That's the good news.

But even these first attempts at assessment and accountability encountered resistance this year. And the momentum for reform has slowed. Clark County's principals wanted the new high school proficiency exam thrown out at the first sign that their students were performing poorly. And administrators got out their tin cup to beg the state for help as the K-12 testing program began to reveal educational deficiencies.

Clark County Superintendent Brian Cram dissed the $3 million remediation fund allocated by the 1997 Legislature as "barely a down payment.'' And Jerry Conner, executive director of the Nevada Association of School Administrators, complained that the standards program has had a "demoralizing impact.''

Matthew Gandal of Achieve, Inc., a nonprofit education research group based in Cambridge, Mass., sees a lot of people in denial. "Until you look at the state tests and the work required to do well on them, I don't think anybody can tell whether a state's got rigorous expectations for its kids,'' he says. Regrettably, Nevada's education establishment seems all too eager to delay implementation of new standards and resist grade-by-grade testing that would keep youngsters from falling through the scholastic cracks.

Fed up with excuses, last fall a group of the nation's most honored teachers wrote a letter roundly condemning the poor condition of American public education. Their words ought to reverberate from Jackpot to Laughlin.

The letter calls for "the end of a monopoly on schooling that stifles innovation, discourages choice, resists change, claims all children as its wards by right, and ignores the cries of parents dismayed by its ineffectiveness and rigidity.''

John Taylor Gatto-twice named New York State Teacher of the Year and three times named New York City Teacher of the Year-and 30 other educators went on to advocate greater freedom for parents to choose schools for their children, a return to traditional subjects and methods of teaching, an end to union interference and an emphasis on phonics-based reading instruction (which, incidentally, was killed by this year's Legislature).

The letter, written in September, was also available to lawmakers. Yet only reformers such as Sen. Washington took heed, and the Sparks minister was left to preach in the wilderness. Amid the chronic whining and the gnashing of teeth by Nevada's educrats, Guinn was challenged again and again to break his no-new-taxes pledge. The NSEA floated numerous trial balloons intended to boost teacher salaries, including a scheme to add two paid non-instructional days to the school calendar.

To his credit, Guinn refused to waver and the Democrats folded. Still, the union wasn't about to take no for an answer. In the waning days of the session, NSEA President Elaine Lancaster unveiled a scheme to impose a 5 percent "business profits" tax. She estimated that the levy would yield $150 million a year, which would be dedicated to teacher salaries, school supplies and other programs.

Blocked in Carson City, the union vowed to take its case to the people in the form of a ballot initiative. If petitioners garner 44,000 signatures, the plan will be submitted to the 2001 Legislature. Lawmakers could then enact the program or put it on the 2002 ballot.

The strategy is a replay of a union drive a decade ago. Then, lawmakers acceded to the NSEA's wishes and agreed to pump more money into public schools. Now, the education establishment is coming back for more. But will the reception be so accommodating when so many of Nevada's educational outputs are spiraling downward? What goes around may come around.

Higher Ed: Southern Discomfort

Higher education got a boost from Gov. Kenny Guinn's Millennium Scholarship program. Guinn deftly put the Democrats in "me-too" mode when he unveiled the proposal in his State of the State address.

The final version ended up tapping into 40 percent of Nevada's tobacco settlement, a compromise from Guinn's 50 percent and the Democrats' more restrictive 25 percent formula. All parties are hoping that the scholarships-$2,500 for university students and $1,250 for community college attendees-will boost Nevada's woeful collegiate matriculation rate. Indeed, the education research group Achieve, Inc. found that getting a college scholarship was the top motivating factor for students to work hard in school.

Meantime, though, skirmishes continue over college funding, spending and the prospect of a new state college. Amid the crossfire, Chancellor Richard Jarvis is rumored to be on the way out. While no one in the system will officially confirm or deny the reports, it's clear that the rift between Northern and Southern regents is as wide as the North-South funding gap.

In the prevailing paranoia, Jarvis is seen by many Southerners as being too cozy with UNR President Joe Crowley. Crowley, a 20-year veteran, says the university and college system did "quite well'' during the just-concluded Legislature. But that view is not shared on Maryland Parkway, where UNLV's leaders feel like they just got fleeced in a game of three-card monty. Crowley suggests that the Southerners' problems stem from a "lack of familiarity with the system.''

Lawmakers took a tentative step to rectify the funding disparity by shifting $5.9 million to the South. But according to a regents' equity study, that still left a $34 million shortfall. Lawmakers, predictably, responded by ordering a $150,000 study of their own. Debate then raged over whether the task force will be geographically balanced.

Other equity problems went unaddressed. Merit pay continues to be ladled out to administrators, despite the legislative intent that it be reserved for faculty. UNLV professors, for example, are griping that the director of the Greenspun School of Communication received a merit increase after just one semester on the job. Faculty of similar tenure have been told they need not bother to apply.

Lawmakers' approval of a dental school was viewed as a major victory for the system and particularly UNLV, which will be the host campus. State Sen. Ray Rawson shepherded the project through with promises that the school would "pay for itself.'' But skeptics recall that the same claims were made about the medical school. It quickly turned into a chronic consumer of cash.

Perhaps the biggest potential boondoggle came courtesy of Assembly Majority Leader Richard Perkins. He rammed through a $500,000 feasibility study for his pet project, a new state college in Henderson. Spouting grandiose visions of a third tier in higher education, Perkins wants to position the school between the community colleges and more research-oriented universities.

But what the Henderson Democrat is really pushing is old-school industrial-age pork barrel. While he's plumping for the home folks, other states are advancing light years ahead on the Internet. Universities are broadening their reach while cutting their expenses via the World Wide Web.

New York University launched a for-profit Internet division last year. It is now creating "courseware" that can be licensed to other colleges, as well as used internally to lower instruction and infrastructure costs.

Universities, public and private, are responding to entrepreneurial upstarts such as the University of Phoenix, which has moved aggressively toward Internet-based degree programs. The private school now has 66,000 students in 32 states.

Perkins sees his Henderson State College focusing on teacher training. Touting it as a national center for pedagogy, he and Henderson Mayor James Gibson are positioning Hooterville for big bucks at the 2001 Legislature.

In light of the well-documented shortcomings of teacher colleges, there are many reasons to question the efficacy of erecting another multimillion-dollar Ivory Tower. But even if a demand is demonstrated, lawmakers should be leery of investing in an outdated model. Fact is, the Internet can provide state-of-the-art courses and world-class instruction without the steel and concrete overhead.

Indeed, Nevada's legislators ought to be tracking and supporting the region's own Western Governors University, which is emerging as a higher-education presence on the Internet. Now, if they could only figure out how to use their laptop computers.

The institutional pressures for the status quo are formidable, says Michael DeBow, a professor who studies higher-ed issues for Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. "No one really wants to talk about [Internet education] because it's a threat,'' he says. "There's a bricks-and-mortar orientation among college presidents to brag, 'This was built on my watch.'''

"There's an arms race for students,'' DeBow adds. "If taxpayers knew how much money was spent on student activities centers, fitness centers, and counseling programs there would be a revolt. It seems to me that students don't need to be living in luxury apartments with all the creature comforts.''

As for the prospect of a new state college in Nevada, the professor has a prediction: "Within five years there will be a push to vastly expand whatever they have. No campus is ever satisfied with what they've got. We should be asking how good a job we are doing at teaching students.''

As if on cue, Perkins is already cheerleading for a competitive intercollegiate sports program at his dream school. Go State!  NJ

Ken Ward wrote on Nevada's Victims of Crime program in June's Nevada Journal. He can be contacted at .

For Further Reading:
American Legislative Exchange Council

Education Week

Center for Education Reform


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