Let’s Leave the Bronze Age

By Steven Miller
  • Monday, August 5, 2002

At the root of many of Nevada’s persistent educational problems is a state law that has been on the books for almost 50 years.

The statute is NRS 386.010. It requires boundaries of school districts in the state to be “conterminous with the boundaries of the counties of the state.” In other words, state school districts must be at least as large as the county they’re in.

The bizarre and destructive result of this law can be seen most clearly in Clark County, where the school district is now the sixth largest in America. At last count it contains some 290 schools! But Washoe County School District, too, is oversize—it now reports 86 schools.

Attending class in one or the other of these two metastasizing districts are almost 9 out of 10 Nevada children. Despite the best of intentions, the superintendents atop these Egyptian pyramids can’t even begin to personally make the acquaintance of all the school principals they are supposed to supervise. As for the thousands of teachers and hundreds of thousands of students down at the pyramids’ ground level—they inevitably must be left to the tender mercies of the huge district bureaucracies.

Unfortunately for Nevada’s school children and their parents, large public sector bureaucracies are nearly always monuments to recalcitrance and indifference—the more so, the larger they get. It is not that bureaucrats, as individuals, are bad people. It is simply the way that humans, once part of large paper-shuffling hierarchies, behave.

Discerning observers have remarked on this phenomenon ever since the Bronze Age. Today it is even the basis for an entire independent field of economics. Public Choice theory begins with the axiom that government employees, like other economic actors, make their choices on the basis of their perceived self-interest. Behind their constant cover story of “the public good,” says the Public Choice school, bureaucrats virtually always decide public questions on the basis of what’s best for them—in the words of William A. Niskanen, on factors such as “salary, prerequisites of the office, public reputation, power, patronage ... and the ease of managing the bureau.”

That last factor was evident this spring when the Clark County School District attempted to locate a new middle school right across a busy street from a North Las Vegas casino—even though state law prohibits casinos from being built within 1,500 feet of schools. North Las Vegas Mayor Mike Montandon identified the operative bureaucratic principle. He told CCSD officials, “You’re asking us to just simply hold you to a different standard because it’s more convenient.” 

Similarly, bureaucrats in Nevada’s mega-districts are notorious for slow-dancing into oblivion any new proposals that might require abandoning the comfortable but money-wasting status quo. A recent case in point was a solid and detailed study that we at the Nevada Policy Research Institute produced, showing how CCSD could save $20 million over five years on student bus transportation—with better service. After more than 10 months in district officials’ hands, the study still has never surfaced in district agendas or meeting minutes. Yet implementation could produce disposable income—exactly what CCSD continually complains it lacks.

Among parents who, in trying to look out for their children, interact with the districts, such stories are legion. Many of them—regarding individual children—are heartbreaking. But these stories will never end as long as Nevada remains wedded to a paradigm out of the Bronze Age.

It was 1956 when NRS 386.010—after four years of legislative brooding—was hatched into law. At the time, the conventional wisdom held that the bigger the district, the better. Big districts, it was thought, offered important “economies of scale,” more efficiently utilizing tax dollars. Huge, factory-like schools, run “top-down” on centralized “command and control” models, were thought the way to go.

But research over the last 30 years has refuted that thinking. Beyond a certain modest size, school districts actually run into significant diseconomies of scale—because of the large bureaucracies, the latter’s inherent callousness and the monopolistic absence of competition. That clearly is Nevada’s situation.

It’s time the Silver State embraced a new educational paradigm—one that automatically keeps bureaucracies within appropriate limits, that rewards excellent teaching and scholarly achievement, that welcomes and empowers all minorities, and that solves, cleanly, Nevada’s budget pinch.

This paradigm harnesses the marketplace to insure productive use of both public and private resources.

It uses charter schools and vouchers to empower parents and students.

It is the paradigm of choice.

Steven B. Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

blog comments powered by Disqus