Empowerment in action

Patrick Gibbons

Economic reality hit the Silver State hard last year, as the U.S. housing bubble collapsed and global recession ensued. Many Nevadans lost their jobs as construction came to a halt and tourists stayed home.

The result in Nevada was fewer tax dollars for our governing officials to spend — or waste — as they saw fit. Having lived the high life for so long, Nevada governments weren't up to dealing with an economic environment demanding fiscal prudence and smart investment.

State agencies began to fight over the scarce resources available. Politicians and bureaucrats pulled no punches either — publicly aiming their planned cuts at politically popular (or powerful) programs. Threatening large cuts to education, including reductions in teacher pay, they effectively mobilized enough public (and teacher) support to halt the cuts and push another major tax increase through the Nevada Legislature.

The Clark County School District, for example, needed to cut its budget by about 14 percent, or $120 million. When the Clark County School Board revealed its planned budget cuts in December 2008, it looked to eliminate 260 administrative positions that would save $32 million. Another $3.5 million would come out of central and regional administration budgets. But far larger cuts were aimed at school sites, where opposition would be loudest.

Schools would lose $27.1 million in teacher staffing support, $6.8 million in permanent substitute teachers, $2.7 million in administrative support and $2 million in school support staff. Teacher purchasing cards were to be cut by $4 million, school athletic programs would lose $1.7 million and block scheduling was to be eliminated to save $11 million.

The Clark County School District took its savings out of school budgets — the district entities that directly serve the students. Such planned cuts enrage parents and tick off teachers — which is the point. Given the appearance that school district administrators' hands are tied by economic and political realities, parents and teachers turn their attention toward raising taxes and stopping the budget cuts.

Of course, with smart planning and the right incentives, this situation didn't have to happen.

Oakland Unified Public Schools also faced declining enrollment, a sour economy and a governor demanding budget cuts. But the Oakland district handled the situation far differently than did CCSD. Despite a mandate to cut 12.4 percent from the district budget, Oakland Unified spared its local schools from the brunt of the hit.

Unlike Clark County's schools, every school in Oakland is an empowerment school. Dollars flow directly to the school, attached to each enrolling student. This allows local schools the flexibility to make better decisions on how resources can be best allocated to serve students. Empowered schools not only know how best to serve their students, but their flexibility allows them to innovate and introduce cost-saving solutions that free up resources the school can use more productively elsewhere. In difficult economic times, empowered schools are better equipped to stretch public dollars.

According to Lisa Snell of the Reason Foundation, Oakland Unified cut the central office budget by $21 million, or 42.7 percent. The money that flowed into the classrooms was cut by just $6.6 million — a very manageable 3.7 percent reduction.

Why did the Oakland Public School system treat its schools better than did CCSD? A big reason appears to be that the empowerment framework alters the incentives for teachers and administrators.

Because empowerment schools must see students and parents as the schools' customers, Oakland's system wanted to figure out ways to cut spending without harming students. Thus its district leadership worked actively to protect the budgets of its schools.

In highly hierarchical and pyramidal systems like Clark County's, on the other hand, the priests of the pyramid naturally tend to see the life of the pyramid — and its priesthood — as of supreme value. Yet all public education systems are merely means to an end: the efficient and optimal education of our youth.

So how do empowerment schools score in that respect? Are they only about having a smarter fiscal system? No. Empowerment schools are also about producing smarter students. And notice that, on that front, Oakland Unified is also the most improved urban school district in California.

Empowerment schools may not solve all Silver State education problems, but the evidence is ample that, when implemented properly, empowerment schools use scarce resources more efficiently and can at the same time significantly improve student achievement.

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