Evaluating ‘Policy Governance’

Karen Gray

Oh, what a difference 12 years makes.  Or does it?

Term-limited out after a dozen years on the Clark County School Board, trustees Mary-Beth Scow, Ruth Johnson and Shirley Barber have cast their last votes. When taking office in 1997, each committed to improving student achievement and conquering CCSD's overcrowding problems.

Sold on promises of higher student achievement, the board submerged the district in a controversial governing approach called Policy Governance® – a trademarked, commercially sold package of operating principles and consultant services for boards of trustees. Trustees – except for Barber, who fought the concept to the end – embraced the ideology of "strategic leadership for the future."  The board would produce student achievement through "outward vision," engulfing every decision in "future thinking rather than past or present," to ensure that "Clark County School District students have the knowledge, skills, attitudes and ethics necessary to succeed academically and practice responsible citizenship at a justifiable cost."

So is Clark County better off after 12 years under these trustees? During that period, graduation rates plummeted more than 10 percent, norm-referenced test scores hovered or dropped, student SAT scores dropped 15 points, and schools remain overcrowded.

In 1997, students scored near or at the national averages on norm-referenced tests (NRT), with high probability of graduation.  Fourth graders ranked in the 49th and 57th percentiles for reading and language arts on the TerraNova NRT.  Four years later, fourth graders ranked virtually the same – in the 49th and 56th percentiles for reading and language arts – but had jumped 10 points in math, into the 61st percentile. Today fourth graders take a different norm-referenced test from the TerraNova, the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills.  On that, in 2007-08 they ranked in the 49th, 54th and 55th percentiles for reading, language arts and math – showing no significant improvement.

Nevada moved to the Iowa test in 2002-03, and the class of 2008 was the first class of seventh graders measured under it. That class also – under the CCSD board's adoption of Policy Governance – became the official baseline from which Policy Governance's success would be assessed.

That year, the class of seventh graders scored in the 40th, 42nd, 44th and 46th percentiles in reading, language arts, math and science. In 2007-08, when seventh graders took the Iowa test, they scored lower: in the 37th, 43rd, 44th and 43 percentiles.

By the time the class of 2008 graduated and board members entered their final months of service, the number of credit-sufficient seniors who passed the Nevada High School Proficiency Exam dropped by 2 percent in writing and 7.5 percent in math, compared with the 1997 class scores. The percentage of students passing the reading test remained the same as in 1997, while graduation rates fell from 73.3 percent to 63 percent.

Furthermore, for those entering college, scores on the SAT Reasoning Test (formerly the Scholastic Aptitude and Scholastic Assessment tests) dropped from 502 to 489 (verbal) and from 512 to 497 (math) by the time the class of 2008 students were seniors.

And overcrowded schools and portable classrooms? They still abound – even with 35,596 seats vacant in the Las Vegas valley.  

In 1998, the district had 235 schools and claimed enrollment approximating 200,000 students.  Schools were overcrowded.  Some operated on year-round and double-session schedules.  Others utilized portable classrooms.  With enrollment projected at 374,000 by 2009, voters approved a capital improvement bond to be taxed through a school bond property tax at a rate of 55 cents per $100 of assessed value. 

Ten years later, official enrollment is 311,240 and board members have approved completion of 101 new schools and construction of 11 replacement schools and authorized $1 billion in renovations and modernizations.

Yet schools remain overcrowded. Ninety schools operate on a year-round schedule and 1,737 portables are utilized for classrooms.

And what about the "justifiable cost"?

The district's Budget and Statistical Report for fiscal year 2008-09 details the massive costs of Clark County's education operation.

When trustees took office, the district's General Operating Fund received $773,935,331 in appropriations, with a per-pupil budget of $4,321. Today, CCSD's final budget appropriations are at $2.174 billion – $6,921 per pupil.

Not only are Clark County residents paying $2,600 more per pupil to achieve results worse or equivalent to 12 years ago, they're indebted $4.9 billion in capital improvement bonds with repayment obligations until 2028 for a still-overcrowded school district.

Policy Governance was imposed to improve future student achievement at a "justifiable cost." That future is now here, and either Policy Governance – or the board – has failed.

Or both.

Karen Gray is an education researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.