A model of failure

Andy Matthews

If you were to build a business enterprise from scratch, you'd likely consider a number of different models — various ways to strike a proper balance between necessarily competing objectives.

For example, while you would probably seek to offer competitive salaries or wages to your employees, you would also be mindful of the need to limit your overhead costs. Your goal, ultimately, would be to find the mix of business practices that would maximize the likelihood your new operation became as successful as possible.

Whatever your approach, one thing you most certainly would not do is adopt a business model designed to ensure an expensive yet low-quality product or service that failed to meet the needs of your customers. This kind of approach would quickly render you an ex-business owner.

Yet here in Nevada, the public education system is based precisely on such a model. The predictable result is that, year after year, taxpayers shell out ever-larger sums of money to purchase chronically dismal student achievement and decreasing levels of parental satisfaction.

In a recent study by the Nevada Policy Research Institute, author G. Gregory Moo examines the law that ensures this business model remains in place in the Silver State. Titled "NRS 288: A Law Against Student Learning," the study reveals how that statute serves to undermine the education system's supposed purpose: teaching students.

Chiefly, finds Moo, NRS 288 hinders student achievement by a) making it extremely difficult to fire bad teachers and b) mandating collective bargaining between school districts and teacher unions.

Writes Moo:

… Chapter 288 of the Nevada Revised Statutes compels school districts to negotiate long, difficult and costly step-by-step procedures that district administrators must follow to terminate a teacher. Moreover, NRS 288 requires that school districts must collectively bargain with teacher unions on a whole shopping list of "subjects" — making contract agreements between school districts and teacher unions into cumbersome obstacles to any school-district effort to improve learning.

It's easy to anticipate the parade of horribles that such a law would unleash. Research has shown that of all the school-related factors that impact student achievement, the single most important is teacher quality. Naturally, then, the more difficult it is to remove poor teachers, the more students will suffer. The failure to connect those dots — there are, after all, only two — is something only government could pull off.

Then again, to assume an interest in even trying to connect those dots may be to give the education establishment too much credit. As Moo makes clear, the teacher unions use the collective bargaining process to fight tooth and nail to secure perks for themselves, with little to no regard for the impact their desired policies would have on students. Moo captures this sentiment wonderfully by offering a quote from Al Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers: "When students start paying union dues, I'll start representing students."

It's a business model designed perfectly for failure: offering an expensive yet low-quality service that fails to meet the needs of the customers. Nevada has tripled its inflation-adjusted, per-pupil spending on public K-12 education over the past five decades, yet the system, because it is has been gamed to place unions' interests ahead of students', fails to deliver the quality education Nevada's children need and deserve.

Unlike our hypothetical business enterprise described above, however, the public education system remains up and running. That's because, unlike private-sector entities, the system is able to legally insulate itself from the kinds of competitive pressures that would otherwise doom it. Until meaningful reforms are enacted, countless Nevada children will continue to suffer under a system whose only legitimate reason for existence is to meet their needs — but which is designed to do no such thing.

The good news is that Nevada today finally has a governor who has demonstrated an understanding of and commitment to solving the state's daunting education problems. Brian Sandoval has outlined an ambitious reform agenda that would usher in a number of the demonstrably effective policy changes the state so badly needs. In moving forward, he'd be wise to give close consideration to the central role that NRS 288 plays in Nevada's educational failures.

Andy Matthews is vice president for operations at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit http://npri.org/. This article first appeared in the May 2011 edition of Nevada Business.