The Red Herring

Nevada K-12 education’s real problem is huge and systemic waste

By Steven Miller
  • Monday, April 11, 2005

The old and bogus controversy over Nevada’s ranking in the national per-pupil spending sweepstakes flared up in the Legislature again last week. As usual, an accusatory tag team of government educrats and teacher union operatives was on offense.

Given all the hashing and re-hashing Nevada has seen of this topic, it is striking how fixated on it these aggressive pedagogues remain.

“It’s because we care about the children,” our educationists would no doubt say. “Plus, you get what you pay for, in education as elsewhere.”

But just a wee bit of realism reminds us that high per-pupil spending in America often correlates with pathetic educational results—witness New York City, Washington, D.C., and many other union-dominated jurisdictions. On the other hand, low per-pupil spending is often linked with relatively high educational success—as with our neighbor Utah, and with private and parochial schools.

Could there be other reasons why representatives of Nevada’s school establishment return so frequently to this refrain? Three possibilities come immediately to mind.

First, the chronic focus on spending could simply reflect what union and district officials really care most about: money. In this they have direct, palpable and personal vested interests. For decades, ever-greater public spending has been their path to ever-greater power, wealth and importance.

Second, pretending that spending is the most important factor in public school success provides an always ready, all-purpose excuse for every systemic failure—of which Nevada certainly has an ample share. It thus provides political protection in what is, after all, a highly politicized public school system.

Third, and perhaps most important, all the propaganda about Nevada’s place in the national student subsidy standings sidetracks folks. To the extent you can generate a false consensus about the sources of Nevada public education’s failures, to that extent people stop looking for the actual causes of the state’s systemic failure.

And that failure—as documented each year when Silver State kids take the National Assessment of Education Progress exams—is immense. The human and material costs both for the children and taxpayers of Nevada are beyond calculation. Moreover this has gone on, and grown progressively worse, for decades. In a just world, those responsible would long ago have paid a heavy and well-deserved price.

In our world, however, the best defense is often a good offense. And so, a constant drumbeat about supposedly inadequate per-pupil taxpayer subsidies has proven an effective way to shift the blame, maintain the political initiative and, perhaps most importantly, keep the money flowing.

The day when such shenanigans can continue to control Nevada education policy may, however, be nearing its end. New research continues to prove that the quality of the individual teacher is by far the most important factor in student success.

What that means is that it will be easy to tell when State of Nevada and school district officials really start attempting to fulfill their fiduciary duty to Silver State parents, children and taxpayers: You’ll hear a massive bleat of anger from the teacher union bosses.

Because teachers vary greatly in talent and performance, significant new success in Nevada’s public schools will require identifying and rewarding those remarkable and exceptional individual teachers who add real, measurable extra educational value in their classrooms. But that can’t happen so long as the teacher union can continue imposing its grey, collectivist pay grids on Nevada schools.

Those salary schedules ignore factors of individual performance and reward teachers just as much for mediocrity as for excellence. By design, this elevates union solidarity (and thus the union brass) over the teacher’s calling.

Vast millions of taxpayer dollars are wasted each year by school district administrators and union bosses through the grids. They could move to measuring teacher quality by tracking individual students’ improvements year by year. But it’s so much less threatening to the union to just look at longevity and trivial teacher college degrees—neither of which, research has shown, significantly helps student achievement.

It is this—Nevada’s chronic spending to purchase what is known to not work—instead of what does work—that is this state’s fundamental education problem. And it has persisted for decades because it grows directly out of the debased role of the modern state as the servant of well-organized special interests.

And it is this, finally, that our tag team is laboring so energetically to protect—a pathological system that gifts them with big bucks and massive political clout, even while it breaks the hearts of parents and teachers, and fails our children.

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

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