Nevada’s hidden accountability wars

Disdain for parents’ goals for their kids is built into the public education establishment. But most politicians never get it.

By Steven Miller
  • Thursday, July 20, 2006

Senator Bill Raggio had his doubts. Minutes of the 2005 Legislature’s hearings make that clear.

But Gov. Kenny Guinn was eager to try something “new” with Nevada’s huge number of at-risk public schools, and he’d announced the idea in his State of the State message.

An unprecedented $100 million, said Guinn, should be given out to failing Nevada schools during the coming biennium — with the money “fast-tracked,” and distributed as quickly as possible. Moreover, said the governor, the grants should be made and overseen, not by lawmakers, nor by the state Department of Education, but by his own, hand-picked appointees.

Raggio’s skepticism about the Guinn approach revealed itself in multiple ways. One was Senate Bill 214 — legislation that Raggio had already asked legislative staffers to draft. Its premise was and is that Nevada’s “school improvement plan” process itself is in significant need of improvement. So SB 214 mandated an entirely new level of stricter, more detailed reporting by schools and districts on their improvement plans.

Given the decades of attention the Senate Majority Leader has already lavished on the state school system, it says much about the system’s condition that he concluded that new, even-tighter mandates are required.

It also suggests why Raggio repeatedly, during the 2005 session, expressed skepticism over elements of Guinn’s plan.

In late April, for example, Raggio noted publicly that the legislation submitted by the governor — SB 404 — did not keep the long pledge Guinn had made to Nevada taxpayers in his State of the State message.

“We must develop a system that is long on accountability and short on excuses,” the self-proclaimed education governor had announced. “It must be a system that demands progress. And, if progress is not made, then we must require that leadership in these failing schools be changed. The future of our children depends on it. The future of our state depends on it.”

Yet, as Raggio observed when Guinn aide Lisa Foster appeared before his committee, “That is not in the bill.” Noting the “reluctance to change” that exists within Nevada’s school system, the senator continued: “This [grant program] is not going to work unless there is some kind of sanction…. Too often, there is no way to ensure there is a mechanism to achieve the goal after the money is provided.”

Raggio’s remark reflected his years as a legislator overseeing the Nevada public school system. Nevertheless, the governor’s office declined to set sanctions for wasting taxpayer funds.

“We do not want to create a disincentive to apply for this money,” said Foster.

The final form of the administration bill, therefore, plumbed new lows for timidity: “If a school district or public school that receives money … does not meet the criteria for effectiveness … over a 2-year period, the Commission may consider not awarding future allocations of money to that school district or public school.” (Emphasis added.)

The differences in outlook between the senator and the governor during the 2005 legislative session are important. They reflect the central conflict in American public education for over a century.

This conflict, remarkably enough, is almost never publicly recognized by elected policymakers. And because it is not, it has had the power, time and again, to covertly capture and derail important public education reform efforts. Today in Nevada this capture-and-derail process is once again well advanced.

At root the conflict is a debate over what really works in the classroom. While parents, policymakers and taxpayers generally expect public school teachers to know how to teach, many in fact do not. The reason: They’ve been taught teaching methods well at odds with what actually does work.

To make matters worse, large numbers of public school educators become deeply invested in the emotionally seductive ideology that underlies these teaching approaches. According to that “progressive” ideology, the educational priorities of parents, the public and policymakers are quite unenlightened. While most parents and policymakers put the highest priority on children actually learning, the ed establishment — convinced of both its moral and intellectual superiority — continues to tell itself that “genuine” learning only unfolds naturally as the child develops. Actual teaching of the school curriculum, therefore, is continually discounted in favor of mere facilitation for the supposedly happily exploring child.

Thus the accountability wars going on beneath the surface here in Nevada.

Until the state’s ed establishment is compelled to join with parents and focus on children’s need for actual, long-term learning, all the $100 million programs in the world will make little difference.

Steven Miller is editor of BusinessNevada and policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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