Assessing the governor’s education reforms

Patrick Gibbons

Just six days into the New Year, Governor Gibbons was already making headlines, proposing sweeping changes to public education. He called for school vouchers, ending mandatory collective bargaining with teacher unions, replacing the State Board of Education with an advisory council, and even removing state mandates for class-size reduction and all-day kindergarten.

While attacked as an orchestrated PR move to resuscitate the governor's popularity, the proposals also stirred much-needed debate about public education. Given its sour economy and lagging revenues, the state needs new ideas for quality public education at low costs. Agree with Gibbons' proposals or not, he got the conversation started.

Budget constraints aren't the only reason reforms are needed. As Gibbons noted, 23 percent of Nevada's public schools rank as some of the nation's worst. Worse still, Nevada's high-school graduation rate is dead last among the states. Nevada's graduation rate is so low that it's even outperformed by Detroit Public Schools. Detroit!

Fewer than half of all low-income Hispanic and African-American fourth graders in Nevada can even read at grade level, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Massive achievement gaps of 20 to 30 percentage points exist between white and minority students in math and reading. A similar gap persists between low-income students and everyone else.

Nevada public schools are burdened by many officious rules and regulations, and would be empowered by the removal of some state-level mandates, as Gibbons proposes. Eliminating the state board of ed and collective bargaining — stumbling blocks for fiscal responsibility and meaningful education reforms — would also be net improvements.

The governor was even correct on education vouchers. An overwhelming multitude of empirical studies have demonstrated that vouchers improve student achievement, increase racial diversity in school, and raise student tolerance and civic knowledge. Even traditional public schools improve when vouchers bring competition to districts.

Both Democrats and Republicans recognize that public education in Nevada is often terrible. Democrats are realizing they can no longer trot out the tired argument that the state is somewhere at the bottom in education spending. (In reality, depending on the metric, Nevada's K-12 spending ranks anywhere between 26th and 47th nationally).

Consequently, Democrats have begun to adjust their talking points. Last session, Senate Majority Leader Senator Horsford himself offered legislation to drastically alter the State Board of Education. The senator is also a major supporter of teacher evaluations, alternative teacher certification, pay-for-performance and empowerment schools.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rory Reid, on Nevada Public Radio, stated that, "What we need in Nevada is reform. Our system is not working and we need to do something different." While Commissioner Reid did not spell out his plan, he talked about the need for public-private partnerships in public education. This sounds a lot like the charter school or empowerment school concepts.

Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, though condemning the governor's proposals, embraced the reform mentality as well. "Expand the real empowerment model to every school," she asserted in a January 12 press release. "This is a method that can greatly benefit Nevada schools when implemented correctly." Buckley, though no big fan of charter schools, even suggested allowing existing charter schools to expand their operations by permitting them to open new campuses.

Even the state teacher union, the Nevada State Education Association, long the bugbear of education reformers, has at least nominally embraced meaningful reforms. NSEA President Lynne Warne said in a Nevada public radio interview that the union supports legislation for alternative pay scales (pay-for-performance) and removal of the state prohibition on using student test data in teacher evaluations, which the union itself demanded in 2003. The union's Clark County local has also supported the Clark County School District's empowerment school pilot program.

The debate is shifting because the empirical evidence supporting these reforms continues to mount and public impatience continues to grow. Thus, hyperbole about spending and jobs for adults is giving way to talk about accountability, achievement and results. It should be only a matter of time before rhetoric, too, gives way to action.

Whether or not the governor's proposals have any immediate purchase with legislators, it has been excellent to see former supporters of the status quo going on record in behalf of real reforms.

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

Read more: