Invested in mediocrity

Patrick Gibbons

For nearly a century people in the Soviet Union, India and China believed central planning was the premier form of economic organization, with commissars issuing production quotas for factories and determining how goods would be rationed among the people.  

Contrary to Marxist predictions, centrally planned economies failed miserably. Instead of equality and social justice, poverty and starvation prevailed — while a class of unaccountable bureaucrats assumed the old aristocracy's privileges.

Unfortunately, Nevada's public education runs largely on the same principles as the Soviet Union economy. Central-office bureaucrats ration teachers, books, maps, computers, administrators, janitors, basketballs, light bulbs, etc. — despite inferior knowledge of what resources are needed where and who needs them most. This ineffective use of scarce resources means shortages, waste and large bureaucracies that, predictably, become ends in themselves. Jobs for adults, rather than education for the children, become the priority.

The Washoe County School District (WCSD) is no exception. Spending more per pupil than most industrialized nations, it employs approximately one employee for every nine students.

In 2007, Nevada's legislature passed SB 238, requiring Washoe and Clark counties to create a few empowerment schools — schools empowered to control some 90 percent of their budgets. Rather than central bureaucrats dictating how resources were to be used, local principals and teachers would become educational entrepreneurs, able to decide how best to use such resources.

This model arose in Edmonton, Canada, in the 1970s. Today, public schools in Edmonton control 90 percent of their own budgets. Each can choose to purchase services from the private sector or the central office. Central operations that could not compete were closed; others learned how to provide the services the schools really wanted.

Principals, teachers, parents and the community loved it: The more schools saved, the more they could spend on students, supplies and teachers — making the whole system more efficient. Edmonton public schools today are so financially and academically sound, notes William Ouchi, author of Making Schools Work, that they can aggressively compete with private schools — even though private-school tuition is government-subsidized.

So how do Washoe County's empowerment schools fare? Not well: Two years after the law passed, WCSD has not created a single empowerment school. The district says it abandoned the program when additional funding promised by state lawmakers was cut.

That excuse, however, falls flat. Although the legislature initially intended additional funding, under the law, implementation of empowerment was not contingent on the funding. And despite the lack of additional funds, the Clark County School District today has 17 empowerment schools. Even Douglas County has one, and it was not even required to have any by law.

There are plenty of bad laws in Nevada that probably could be ignored without negative consequences, but reforms to a stagnant system of public education are not among them. Parents, teachers and students all should be concerned that WCSD chose to flaunt state law rather than start implementing a program proven to work.

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