Public schools struggle under hordes of federal, state and district rules that make bureaucratic obedience, not student achievement, a top priority. This is one reason that school empowerment and decentralization — reducing district red tape — are effective reforms.
To work, however, both reforms must be real. So how real are they in Nevada's empowerment programs?
A little history: After the Clark County School District began experimenting with the empowerment school concept in 2006, Governor Gibbons and the 2007 Nevada Legislature expanded the program statewide, passing SB 238 into law. It required both the Clark and Washoe county school districts to convert 5 percent of their schools into empowerment schools. The final statute states that those empowerment schools:
… shall have discretion of 90 percent of the amount of money from the state financial aid and local funds that the school district apportions for the school, without regard to any line-item specifications or specific uses determined advisable by the school district, unless the empowerment team determines that a lesser amount is necessary to carry out the empowerment plan.
Overtly, at least, the law had strong bipartisan support. "The decision-making will be initiated by local stakeholders in the school, not central administration or state agencies," said then-Senate Minority Leader Steven Horsford (D).
Unfortunately for Nevada students, teachers and taxpayers, the law's provisions have often been largely ignored by state and local agencies. The Nevada State Department of Education told the Washoe district it need not obey the law after budget cuts reduced planned empowerment school funding. In reality, compliance with the law was not conditional upon additional resources.
As one empowerment principal noted, "Empowerment is not about the extra money, it is about moving decision-making to the local level." Sen. Horsford agrees. "You can do empowerment without more money," he told teachers and principals at a recent conference. "You can do empowerment by giving the flexibility to the schools, principals and teachers."
Nevertheless, the Washoe County School District created not a single empowerment school. Nor did the Nevada State Department of Education take any steps to rectify its error.
The Clark County School District, on the other hand, did comply with some important empowerment-law provisions. Expanding empowerment to 17 schools, it met the law's 5 percent requirement. It also has committed to adding more than a dozen new empowerment schools over the next school year.
Yet, the CCSD empowerment program also fails to meet important requirements of law. According to district consultant Mike Strembitsky and program manager Jeremy Hauser, only recently have district empowerment schools been given control over about 60 percent of their budgets — which is far short of the 90 percent required by state law. Nor do empowerment schools enjoy as much autonomy as the law intended.
So-called discretionary funds at empowerment schools are heavily monitored by the district office, requiring several administrators' approval before funds can be spent. School credit cards are limited to $1,000 at a single point of purchase and budgets not spent by the school in one year cannot be saved for the next. Principals are also required to submit waiver requests on district rules, despite the law's express decree that empowerment schools be freed from district mandates on how to use resources.
Additionally, empowerment schools, like traditional public schools, have no control over facilities, landscaping or school maintenance. Empowerment schools are even subjected to central-office "monitors," who dictate when lights and computers should be turned off and how high air conditioning should be set.
Empowerment school principals also have limited control over the hiring and firing of teachers and cannot go outside the district's candidate pool to recruit talented specialists for unique school programs. Principals have also found it laborious to remove staff members who do "not fit the empowerment climate." In these ways, CCSD empowerment schools are only somewhat empowered.
Notwithstanding these lapses, however, CCSD's empowerment school principals — even when speaking in confidence — expressed optimism for the program. None wished to return to the old system, which they felt was under too much central-office control. They felt there was just enough autonomy to allow them to succeed. Most also felt that greater autonomy vis-à-vis spending on facilities, landscaping, custodial work, food services and transportation should be granted to principals who want to take on that responsibility.
Empowerment school teachers were also very optimistic, reporting they felt they had more significant roles in the school's direction and that their opinions mattered. Several were excited about the opportunity to help select their school's next principal — something those particular teachers felt they never had an opportunity to do before. One principal noted that teachers, once empowered, no longer sat in isolation within their classrooms. Instead, they communicated and strategized more frequently on how to achieve their goals and how to use resources to the greatest effect.
So, while neither Nevada's empowerment law, nor its implementation, has been perfect, much, so far, has been encouraging.
In the next segment, we'll discuss ways the state's empowerment program can be improved.
Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.