Power for Nevada education

Empowerment schools offer beacon of hope for serious education reform

By Patrick R. Gibbons
  • Tuesday, May 26, 2009

By 1989 the Soviet Union's iron curtain had all but collapsed. Though the transition from communism to capitalism was tough, the people were reclaiming freedom in politics and in their private lives. Gone were the days of central planning, where soviet commissars sat on high, issuing production quotas for factories and determining how goods would be rationed among the people.

Unfortunately, American public education today is largely run in much the same way that the Soviet Union ran its economy. The central office often makes the decisions on how many teachers, books, maps, pens, computers, administrators, janitors, basketballs, light bulbs, faucets, toilet paper rolls, etc. are needed.

When the central office of a district controls the rationing of resources among schools, schools must demand as much as they can. This not only leads to waste but also to situations where some schools don't get enough teachers, while another school receives too many books, and yet another school receives globes when it really needs U.S. maps.

Empowerment schools, like charter schools, turn this backward paradigm on its head by literally empowering local schools to decide how the school operates. Today, 14 such schools now operate in the Clark County School District. Think of them as the West Berlin of the CCSD — free but surrounded by an inflexible, centralized economy.

Today's empowerment school model began with Mike Strembitsky, who in the 1970s became the superintendent of Edmonton, Canada's public school system. Seeing quickly that the central-planning model of public education was incoherent, he began injecting a little business know-how and a lot of common sense.

In Edmonton, public schools receive money for each student whose family selects that school. Then the school is responsible for setting its own budget and prioritizing its own needs. If a foreign-language course is determined to be a local priority, the salary for the teacher of that course comes out of the local budget. If maps or globes or any particular school supplies are needed, they, too, come from that school's budget. If a school desires help on professional development, printing or even assistance with the budgeting process, the local school administrators can either hire the central office or hire independent providers from the private sector to offer those services.

If the central office cannot compete on price with the private sector, it loses funds, as it can only make money by selling its services. As the school district saves money through entrepreneurialism and competition, the central bureaucracy begins to shrink, allowing more dollars to flow to the student, rather than central command. Today, Edmonton public schools control 90 percent of the district's budget — which means that overhead for the central office is a mere 10 percent.

According to William Ouchi, author of Making Schools Work: A Revolutionary Plan to Get Your Children the Education They Need, Edmonton Public Schools are so financially and academically sound that they can aggressively compete with private schools, even though parents can have some or all of their private tuition paid for by the government. Ouchi, along with many school principals in Edmonton, found that parental involvement increased when choice was introduced and schools became more responsive to the needs of parents and their children.

Even the teacher union supported the system. "Decentralization is a wonderful thing," said Edmonton teacher union president Karen Beaton, "because it gave teachers the opportunity to be empowered and to have a role in making decisions about their schools."

Like businesses, empowerment schools must determine their priorities and direct spending in a way that meets the needs of their customers — the students and their parents. With open enrollment, schools must either prove they can educate students, or watch revenues depart to other public schools, along with departing students.

Empowerment schools are a bold new reform for Nevada's public education, one that — if not aborted — will empower teachers, principals, parents and students alike.

"Public schools can be great," says Ouchi. "They don't have to be mediocre and they don't have to be unresponsive. A truly great public school system can hold its own against any and all competitors."

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

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