An answer for the chancellor

Why Nevada’s education system is failing

By Patrick R. Gibbons
  • Tuesday, January 27, 2009

In his State of Education address Friday, Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Jim Rogers questioned Nevada's education system, asking,

What then has made the Nevada education system go from good to average to less than average since the 1960s when Nevada's high schools won multiple awards for being among the best in the nation?

The answer is: a massive increase in per-pupil spending over the years, with absolutely no accountability to parents and taxpayers. One major factor in this was the 1969 passage, by the Nevada Legislature, of the Dodge Act. Hampering potential education progress further, this collectivist and undemocratic law effectively required all local government entities to enter into collective bargaining agreements with unions. One result was to institutionalize Nevada public schooling as more of a jobs program than an educational calling—weakening incentives for meaningful educational innovation and creativity in government classrooms.

In 1960, Nevada spent $430 per pupil—roughly $2,837 per pupil in 2005 dollars. By 2005 the state was spending $7,198 per pupil, an inflation-adjusted increase of 153 percent. When one includes capital outlays and school debt per pupil, spending has more than tripled since 1960.

Forty years of government monopoly, virtually no competition and no accountability has led to an enforced stagnation in imagination and innovation, causing public schooling in Nevada to become worse, despite an increase in spending.

*Capital outlays, school debt and teacher pensions are excluded in these figures. The dollar amounts are adjusted for inflation to 2005 dollar values.

Despite these increases in spending per student, educrats continually demand more money while shifting the blame for their failure to others. Some like to blame non-English speakers, poverty or handicapped children as the source of their troubles. While the number of non-English speakers has grown in Nevada, poverty has not seen a massive increase.

Florida, a state that is poorer per resident than Nevada but has the same proportion of Spanish speakers in its population, was able to dramatically increase student performance by spending only $185 more per pupil than a decade ago. Nevada, by comparison, increased funding by $510 per pupil between 1996 and 2006. Yet today, the average low-income Hispanic student in Florida outperforms Nevada's average fourth grader on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) English reading exam.

Jim Rogers doesn't go so far as to blame Nevada's poor or minority population for the troubles Nevada's education system faces. Instead, he blames the parents:

"It's the public—that means you—that has created this disaster of a public education system. ... Maybe most importantly, you have to take part in your child's education. Your responsibility does not stop as they walk out the door to catch the bus."

If a lack of parental involvement is such a serious detriment to a child's education, why aren't the educrats advocating reforms to increase parental involvement? Tuition tax credits, vouchers, scholarship programs and charter schools are all methods that get parents involved by offering them a highly important role in how their child gets educated. Instead, Nevada's government monopoly continues insisting it must make all the choices, for the parent.

There is no greater way to discourage parental involvement than to treat the parents as children themselves.

Until there is choice in education, there will simply be no strong incentive to get parents involved. Still, good schools figure out a way to involve parents. What have Nevada's public schools done so far to make that happen? In actuality, the reigning, if hidden, policy is to frustrate parents and drive them away from involvement.

Nevada's education does need improvement—the fact that 43 percent of fourth-grade students can't read at grade level is enough to demonstrate that. But 40 years of increasing per-pupil spending has not brought the positive changes we desired—so much so that even Jim Rogers has to admit that public education has degenerated in that period.

It is sad to see that many educators see the troubles Nevada faces, but instead of demanding real reforms they ask for more money and less accountability. If we are truly supposed to help the children, shouldn't we be looking toward the education reforms that work?

Those are: merit pay, real school accountability, value-added assessments, charter schools and vouchers or tax credits.

Patrick R. Gibbons is education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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