Opinion: Reorganizing Washoe County schools
If Nevada is consistent about one thing, it’s that our K-12 education system is the worst in the nation.
Some years we might sneak one place ahead of Mississippi, but the latest Education Week rankings had us solidly in last place. Washoe County School District tries to cast the blame for this miserable showing on Clark County schools, and there is some truth to that, but not much.
Some blame this showing on the dominance in the Silver State of gaming on the theory that kids don’t see any need to master calculus if their greatest challenge is figuring out what combination of cards adds up to 21. But, as the state has diversified and begun to attract high tech businesses, things don’t seem to be getting any better.
Historically, the legislature has just thrown money at the problem. But once received, school districts decide how funds will be allocated and no superintendent has come up with any answers that have resulted in improved student achievement.
When Gov. Brian Sandoval first ran for office he outlined an aggressive plan to improve poor student performance. Modeled on Florida’s successful plan, Sandoval initially had some moderate success despite opposition of Democrats and teacher unions. Finally, in 2015, the GOP gained control of the legislature and a number of education choice options were enacted as well as stern measures to improve failing schools. The results of those changes are just becoming evident.
Here’s some more background. Because of a proliferation of lawsuits in other states challenging the constitutionality of education funding in poor urban districts, Nevada determined to make school district boundaries the same as county boundaries. The theory was that countywide school districts would meld urban, suburban, and rural areas all into one jurisdiction, and by funding the same amount per student statewide Nevada would avoid unconstitutionally privileged wealthy districts.
The Guinn Center, named for popular former-Gov. Kenny Guinn and dedicated to non-partisan policy solutions, is located in Las Vegas. They recently promulgated some very interesting research showing a positive correlation between student achievement and individual school autonomy. They report: “Researchers and education experts have acknowledged that greater autonomy at the school site can help school leadership teams develop and implement programs and interventions that best serve the specific needs of their students and improve education outcomes.”
This supports other evidence of the benefit of autonomous school sites. The Edmonton, Canada School District pioneered this concept. The “Edmonton Plan” calls for “empowerment schools,” where all key decisions are made by local principal and teacher teams. Nevada actually enacted an “empowerment schools” law last decade, but teacher-union interests and Democrat legislators conspired to make it unworkable financially.
The Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation published a study of autonomous high poverty, high minority inner city schools in which students scholastically outperformed their wealthy counterparts.
Former Washoe County School Superintendent Heath Morrison actually implemented a program aimed at creating the three Incline Village schools into autonomous sites, but then went off to greener pastures leaving the Washoe School Board to sidetrack the effort by their subsequent Keystone Cops’ antics and financial dysfunction.
Currently underway in Nevada is a study to break the giant Clark County School District into a number of smaller districts. The Guinn Center issued a report comparing San Antonio (Bexar County), Texas to Clark County schools.
San Antonio’s county has a slightly smaller population than Clark County, but is broken into 20 school districts. The poverty rate is 17.6 percent compared with 15.1 percent in Clark County; and 59 percent of the population is Latino compared with 30 percent in Clark County. In San Antonio, the graduation rate is 88 percent compared with Clark County’s 70 percent.
The Guinn Center reports that the core ideas of the Clark County School District reorganization include conversion of failing schools to charter schools, formalized autonomous schools, and creation of magnet schools.
Let’s hope these ideas spill over to Washoe County Schools.
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.