Sandoval brings structure to state’s education system

Jim Clark
On Politics

When Brian Sandoval first ran for governor of Nevada in 2010, he made a twofold promise to voters. He promised to diversify Nevada’s economy, which had historically relied on gaming and mining, and he promised to fix Nevada’s K-12 public education system, which has historically vied with Mississippi for worst in the nation.

For a guy who took office in the midst of the most severe recession in U.S. history, he deserves an A+ for his success in diversifying the state’s economy. Taking his lead from former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Sandoval started by attracting Tesla to Northern Nevada followed by Switch, and then seemingly an avalanche of high wage, low impact industries including but not limited to the Raiders football team to Las Vegas. With unemployment at a statistical zero, Sandoval is entitled to point with pride as he completes his final term as governor.

How about education? Well that’s a more complicated problem. 19.4 percent of Nevada K-12 students are English language learners and another 10.2 percent are students with disabilities. Since the primary method of grading educational systems is comparative test scores; how do you get kids to improve if they can’t read and understand the questions? Taking his lead from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sandoval began to implement legislation following the lines of those that improved public education performance in Florida.

Employing gentle persuasion with sometimes-hostile legislators, Sandoval began by making the position of superintendent of education appointive rather than elective. He then found a grizzled three R’s kind of guy in Jim Guthrie. Guthrie’s solution was simple: take the top 5 percent of teachers, pay them $300,000 per year and give them the social status of medical doctors. Guthrie’s long experience convinced him that top performing teachers could overcome any challenge — English learners, large classes, etc. — and produce superior results. The head of the teacher union said “fine, but you have to pay all teachers of the same tenure and educational attainment the same.” So much for simple solutions.

Sandoval then persuaded the legislature to create a separate charter school authority, standardizing the approval process; he also led the way for the state to help charters to finance their buildings and grounds. He took a look at teacher performance incentive plans and found mixed results.

A RAND Corporation study showed that teacher financial incentives tied to student test score performance were generally ineffective; the analysis showed that in many cases teachers perceived unfairness, had not had the program explained to them, thought their principal was playing favorites, etc. The study recommended any such program be only a part of an integrated compensation plan.

Sandoval persuaded the legislature to pass a number of measures providing for additional funding for schools with high percentages of poverty students and English language learners with stipulations that the funds would not be subject to collective bargaining (hence teacher union control) and could be reduced if their associated remedial programs did not produce results.

Among those were programs to recruit and retain teachers in low performing schools, funding for preschool and all-day kindergarten, read by third grade funding, and a number of financial incentive measures designed to reward teachers for superior performance and academic results.

Although these programs are overseen by the Nevada Department of Education many of the state’s 17 school districts accepted the additional funding but sabotaged the way it is administered. Some took money earmarked for superior teacher performance and simply divided it by the total number of teachers for distribution. Others commingled funds with their general funds subjecting them to collective bargaining.

Clearly fixing Nevada’s K-12 public education is like trying to make a hairpin turn in the USS Nimitz, but Sandoval has brought about a structure that has worked in other states. It will take time, effort, and patience.

Jim Clark is president of Republican Advocates. He has served on the Washoe County and Nevada GOP Central Committees. He can be reached at

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