More than money needed to fix education

By Ron Knecht and Geoffrey Lawrence

Editor’s note: The following is a guest commentary by Nevada State Controller Ron Knecht and Assistant Controller Geoffrey Lawrence.

Nevada’s 2015 legislative session was dubbed “the education session” by some people, and there were major changes in our K-12 system. Yet, despite much talk about Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposals, the most significant reform was not one he proposed.

Nevada catapulted from near the bottom to the top in parental choice terms this year by creating the nation’s first universal Education Savings Account (ESA) program. It lets parents have a portion of the money the state would otherwise spend on their child’s education deposited into an individualized account for them to spend for that purpose.

Parents can use that money to purchase education services and resources from the providers they decide can best serve their child. So, if you want your child learning in an online curriculum, taking night classes at the community college and receiving private tutoring and violin lessons, ESAs let you do that. And unspent monies roll over to the next year.

Apologists for the failed, one-size-fits-all, government K-12 monopoly have leveled bogus criticisms at the new law, saying it harms public education. It does not. It merely separates the public financing element of education from the government-as-monopoly-service-provider element — a significant improvement.

People will be able to use public dollars to shop for the education that best serves their children. Further, parents choosing an ESA will receive less than a district-run school would get to spend on their student, meaning the public schools actually wind up with more money per child for those they continue to school.

Nevada’s ESA program has captured national attention and already become a model for other states. Gov. Sandoval signed the measure into law, but it wasn’t on his list of requested new programs. As his original state superintendent of education James Guthrie pointed out following his State of the State address, the majority of Sandoval’s K-12 “reform” agenda simply threw money at teacher unions and others in the status quo to placate them regarding the few genuine reforms he sought.

Sandoval increased spending on programs of doubtful quality such as full-day kindergarten and class-size reduction. He thus bought-off opposition to a few modest reforms, such as recruiting more charter schools, requiring that students can read before leaving third grade, and creating a very modest school choice program for only about 700 low-income students. He convinced various special interests to accept a political outcome — he did not champion a fact-based policy agenda that promotes the broad public interest.

The ESA bill became law primarily because certain Republican lawmakers didn’t like his plan to levy a new gross receipts tax on businesses just months after Nevadans voted down a similar proposal by a four-to-one margin.  Those legislators demanded passage of the ESA bill at a minimum in exchange for supporting his tax hikes.

Empowering Nevada families to make decisions about education spending as the consumers of those services was a greatly needed reform to help ensure schools allocate resources effectively in order to attract students. But because much of the Sandoval agenda was about myopically “greasing squeaky wheels,” as former superintendent Guthrie says, many reforms are still needed to raise student achievement.

Atop that list are mechanisms to identify, recruit and retain top teaching talent. Research consistently finds that no school-controlled factor is more important than teacher quality. It’s more important than class size, facilities, or anything else. To secure top talent, Nevada needs to offer top dollar­­ — up to $200,000 each for the top few teachers. That’s how businesses and professions work.

Second, Nevada must eradicate barriers that keep talented professionals out of the classroom, such as licensing requirements that take years to complete. School administrators should be free to evaluate talent on the front lines; state and district administrators now engage in too much micromanagement at the behest of teacher unions. If a principal determines that Bill Gates would make a great computer programming teacher, she should have the power to hire him.

And when top talent is found, those teachers should be placed before as many students as possible: We shouldn’t restrict their reach by placing artificial limits on class size. Empirical research supports this proposal. Technology can be used to help the best educators reach more students and manage larger classes using smart phones, tablets and the Internet.

Finally, substantial changes to Nevada’s collective bargaining laws are essential if public schools are ever going to manage resources effectively. Those laws tie the hands of even the best principals and administrators and turn schools from institutions that serve children into make-work programs and institutions run for the benefit of the adults in the provider bureaucracy.

ESAs are a huge win for Nevada children, but much other work remains to be done.