Jim Clark: WCSD trustees fiddling while Rome is burning (opinion)
August 31, 2016
In last week's column, I discussed the Washoe County School District (WCSD) ballot proposition for the November election in which taxpayers will be asked to raise Washoe County's sales tax rate to 8.265% (the highest in Nevada) to fund $781 million in new school bonds, proceeds of which will be used to repair deferred maintenance and build 23 new schools. Once the bonds are repaid, the tax would continue forever.
I pointed out that, according to WCSD's website, its present budget is ample to meet all maintenance and repair needs if they just took money out of the right buckets. I also cited their website for the proposition that enrollment growth rates were nowhere near enough to justify 23 new schools.
I suggested that the problem was the "dysfunctional school board … spending money like drunken sailors, settling lawsuits, firing superintendents, hiring superintendents, screwing up the special education program, etc., instead of budgeting to keep taxpayer-funded buildings in top shape."
And now, as if all this malfeasance weren't bad enough, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported last week that Nevada student scores on the national college entrance exam (ACT) were the nation's "worst" with 89% of seniors "not college-ready." Nevada is neck-and-neck with Mississippi for last place in the nation.
To be fair, Washoe County scored marginally better that the Silver State average, with 15% of seniors testing as "college ready." Moreover, Nevada is one of 18 states that requires all seniors to take the exam, not just college aspirants. While this could depress average scores, Nevada was lowest among the 17 other "mandatory" states.
What is WCSD doing about this? In the same edition of the same newspaper, a story appeared about WCSD organizing a town hall on overcrowding. They're fiddling while Rome is burning. They can't work on producing competitive students because they're busy flimflamming taxpayers for more money.
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There is an answer, folks. And Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval is implementing it. Last session he persuaded the legislature to enact education reforms following Florida's example. Why Florida? Because in 1998, students in both Florida and Nevada, which have similar economic and ethnic characteristics, scored equally badly on national assessment tests.
Starting in 1999, then Governor Jeb Bush championed a series of education reforms and the Sunshine state began to pull away from Nevada. By 2015, Florida's performance in national student achievement tests placed it in the top seven in the nation.
Florida measures included: public school choice, whereby any student could withdraw from a failing school and enroll in a high achievement school; privately funded scholarships for special needs students; tax credit scholarships for low income students to attend public or private schools; charter schools — Florida now has 583 charter schools serving 213,000 students; and online learning with 150,000 students taking e-courses.
While most students function adequately in traditional government schools, both Florida and Nevada have large cohorts of poverty and language-challenged students. One form of education does not work for everybody, and Florida has figured this out. Nevada is on the cusp. By the way Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana have followed Florida's lead in education reforms.
What are the roadblocks to improvements in Nevada's overall student achievement? School board members who are in the pockets of the teacher and administrator unions. Unions hate educational choice because it is competition and draws funding away from traditional school districts.
One trustee said: "School choice takes money out of the system." Oh sure, their system! The money should follow the kid, not public employee unions. Students who perform better in charter schools, virtual (online) schools, home schooling or private schools on scholarship should be given every opportunity to learn in an environment that works best for them.
Readers would be wise to recall this when school board candidates seek support.
Jim Clark is president of Republican Advocates. He has served on the Washoe County and Nevada GOP Central Committees. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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