Drain the Swamp

By Dennis Schiffel
  • Monday, May 17, 2004

In a recent letter to the editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal a retired teacher noted that a national study ranked Nevada 39th among states in high school graduation rates and 49th in college freshmen dropouts.

Much of the blame for this poor performance, wrote the author, rests on the non-involvement of parents in their children’s education—and especially on their lack of demand for higher standards of performance.

It is not surprising that weak high school standards and low college admission standards result in college dropouts and remedial classes for scholarship recipients. In another article in the Review-Journal an education consultant noted that performance standards for both teachers and students are low nationwide. But standards of performance and educational results also reflect the community where the education occurs. If community standards are low, weak performance is likely.

Since community counts, let’s do a brief Nevada and Clark County review, starting with the controversial issues of state budgeting and taxing:

§          The voters elected Governor Guinn without insisting he be forthcoming about his tax and spend plans.

§          Nevada legislative leaders then bungled the budget and tax process in the last legislative session.

§          The Nevada Supreme Court has been roundly criticized by practicing attorneys and legal scholars for an inept, if not incompetent, decision in Guinn vs Legislature.

§          The Nevada Public Utility Commission and the regulatory environment in Nevada have allegedly been deemed among the worst in the U.S. by a national credit rating agency.

§          At least three current and former Clark County Commissioners have been accused of malfeasance in office and are subject to criminal prosecution.

§          The Nevada State Board of Regents and the Community College of Southern Nevada have been held up to ridicule for their actions in ignoring their own rules, state law and simple courtesy.

§          Some state legislators have been accused of double dipping on public salaries.

§          Ethically troubling conflicts of interest apparently occur in the legislature—for example, a dentist in the legislature promoting a dental school.

§          Similarly at the local level, a county recorder planned to open a for-profit business in competition with her elected office.

§          The Equal Opportunity Board cannot account for millions of dollars of public money. Public employees have been accused of misuse of public funds.

§          Las Vegas advertises: “What happens here stays here.” So-called “racy” ads appear on local billboards and television.

§          The mayor of Las Vegas is an ethically challenged former “mob” lawyer, promotes a brand of liquor and allegedly advocates legal brothels in the city.

§          Gambling, which supports the local economy, unfortunately fosters a “get rich without effort” mentality.

The list can be made longer, but even this length makes the point. Whether or not all of these allegations are, in the end, found to be true, they clearly reflect Southern Nevada values and standards of performance. But a community culture of such low expectations and performance must negatively affect education.

Let’s look at one more way the community setting affects education. Many jobs in Las Vegas require only limited education—hotel maids, busboys, waiters/waitresses, car attendants, janitorial staff, kitchen help, gardening and building day laborers etc. More interesting, attractive, higher wage jobs requiring more educational attainment arguably would help motivate more students to achieve better results. Absent those jobs, and with plentiful lower wage jobs requiring only minimal education, what really is the value of education as seen by a teenager?

Given the ultimately political nature of our public schools, is it realistic to expect their overall education standards and results to significantly exceed those of the community at large? The parents uninvolved in their children’s education are also voters, who appear to accept low standards of performance in that arena also. Perhaps the relevant analogy is a swamp: if you choose to live within one, you really shouldn’t complain about mosquitoes and a few rogue alligators.

The point is that genuinely improving education requires a dedicated community response going well beyond the usual recipes. It requires an across-the-board demand for higher community standards.

There is hope. New Nevada residents are importing higher standards and expectations to the community. New companies are moving here with better jobs. Many public servants and teachers themselves deeply desire higher community standards. The swamp will be drained, but it will take time.

Tolerating—let alone rewarding—mediocrity always insures more mediocrity in education, government and life. We reap what we sow.

Dennis Schiffel is a former senior associate at the National Science Foundation and a policy fellow of the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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