Battling for control of the state education system

Joe Enge

Nevada currently finds itself in a bizarre situation in which both everyone and no one are simultaneously in charge of the state’s public K-12 education system.

Senate Bill 540 was heard by the upper chamber’s Committee on Finance on the "do or die” day of Friday, April 13, but because of its importance was exempted from the deadline. This legislation is big — really big. It calls for the complete restructuring and overhaul of the apparatus charged with governing K-12 public education in Nevada.

The centerpiece of that apparatus, the State Board of Education, received blistering criticisms from Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio on Friday. “Dysfunctional,” “inaction,” and “lack of leadership,” were just a few of his descriptions.

In essence, said the senator, enough is enough. He recounted the lamentable history of the state board as an institution, while pointedly emphasizing the Legislature’s constitutional responsibility for the condition of Nevada education.

Raggio noted that major frustrations with the board surfaced 10 years ago during another period of reform attempts. Then, even the Democrat-controlled Assembly and Democratic Gov. Bob Miller wanted to abolish the board. But, said Raggio, his actions prevented that at the time. It was clear from his tone on April 13, however, that since 1997 the state Board of Education has not redeemed itself in his eyes.

It’s a view that most close observers share. The current state education structure is an inefficient and impotent labyrinth, a giant bog where even the most sensible reform ideas vanish from sight. Numerous state education committees have been formed by previous legislative sessions and governors because of a lack of confidence in — and desire to do an end-run around — the state board.

Such needs for a work-around system, said Raggio, grow directly out of the dysfunctional nature of the board and the Nevada Department of Education (NDOE) atop which it sits. By noting the board’s present problems are “a situation of their own making,” the senator signaled that the state board’s failures can no longer be swept under the rug.

So, what is on the table? Under SB 540, the board would be given an advisory role, the state superintendent would be appointed by the governor and the state Department of Education would get more authority — and accountability. A division of accountability would be created in the department, with both fiscal and academic oversight authority.

Nevada's current education structure is plagued by a lack of gubernatorial authority, testified Senator Barbara Cegavske. The governor’s lack of influence has contributed significantly to our state’s education problems, she said.

This restructuring — badly needed and long overdue — should provide that influence. The current system unduly compromises the state superintendent of instruction, who is appointed by the board, yet answers to various other commissions and committees. Once appointed by the governor, the superintendent position will have a direct line of accountability, empowering the position. Then voters will know who to hold accountable for policy leadership, direction and action.

Seeing the handwriting on the wall, State Board of Education member Dr. John Gwaltney and Terry Hickman, Executive Director of the Nevada State Education Association (the teacher union), attempted to delay the juggernaut heading toward them.

Testifying, they took a "This is too complicated to act upon without further study" line. Hickman's testimony, especially, exposed the teacher union as a defender — and prime beneficiary — of the current dysfunctional status quo.

Raggio apparently found both of them unpersuasive. "If you don't want to deal with something,” he said, “you study, study, and study."

A streamlined, accountable state superintendent position and Department of Education under the governor — the structure in many other states — would benefit the many rather than the special interests of a select few.

Joe Enge is education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.