Nevada education needs a coherent plan, not a politically expedient spending spree

By almost any measure, Nevada's education system ranks low, often at the nation’s bottom. Consequently, it makes sense that Gov. Brian Sandoval should elevate education to his topmost priority. Our schools need attention, and the governor desires to improve them. Regrettably, however, his improvement plan falls dramatically short.

Money is not the issue. The governor’s budget calls for healthy spending increases on top of decades of steady education-spending increases.

What is missing from Sandoval’s plan is a systematic strategy for rendering schools more effective and deploying resources more productively. Nevada’s public schools suffer from abysmally low achievement, a shocking lack of performance accountability and an absence of performance and spending incentives. Sandoval proposes a potpourri of ideas, spreading hundreds of millions of new dollars in dozens of directions, few of which address crucial issues of achievement, accountability and productivity.

The governor's budget would spend additional millions on timid reforms such as expanded preschool, English language learning, opportunities for gifted students, staff for low performing schools, opposing cyber bullying, facility construction and more personnel for the State Education Department. 

These proposals appear to be guided more by political expediency — greasing squeaky wheels  — than a goal of effective education. Moreover, by proposing to spend public dollars in less than fully productive ways, the governor’s plan risks the future of tens of thousands of students now trapped in underperforming schools.

The absence of a clear focus on a few high-return strategies wastes money, hurts students and squanders opportunity.

To counter low academic achievement, Nevada must recruit and retain larger numbers of effective teachers, place them where they are most needed and reward them for high performance. No new technology, textbook, class-size reduction, professional development or physical facility can substitute for effective teachers.

By identifying the most effective 10 percent of Nevada’s teachers and offering to pay them $200,000 a year in exchange for additional teaching and mentoring responsibilities, Nevada could become a magnet for teaching talent. As a state, we would have our pick of the nation’s best teachers. This entire plan can be accomplished with existing financial resources by repurposing dollars currently wasted on class-size reduction.

Nevada's public schools lack accountability. No adults feel pain when children persistently fail. To rectify this condition, teacher performance must be fairly measured, principals placed clearly in charge of individual schools, administrators given performance contracts and charter schools and parental choice expanded, using Education Savings Accounts and Opportunity Scholarships.

A symptom of insanity is repeatedly performing the same tasks and expecting different outcomes. Nevada education can regain sanity by concentrating resources on a few high leverage points. Formation of a state cadre of 2,000 effective teachers, empowering parents and quality school principals and enabling able instructors with modern blended-learning instructional technology can quickly elevate achievement, accountability and system productivity.

It is not too late for legislative action to improve student outcomes by lowering the Governor’s proposed financing and channeling it into a coherent plan for elevating education in Nevada.

A version of this article was originally published by the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Dr. James W. Guthrie was appointed by Gov. Brian Sandoval to serve as Nevada’s first governor-appointed State Superintendent of Public Instruction and served from 2013 to 2014. Previously, Dr. Guthrie was the first appointed senior fellow and director of education policy studies at the George W. Bush Institute, a component of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.