Same old story in Nevada education

Patrick Gibbons

Cornelius Vanderbilt sold passages across the Atlantic on steamers for as little as $30 a ticket. Andrew Carnegie's steel company became so efficient it forced the world price for steel down from $56 per ton to just $11.50 in less than 30 years. John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil, by 1890, was selling oil for just eight cents a gallon.

These entrepreneurs ran their businesses efficiently and made their profits massive by simply giving customers what customers wanted — at better rates than did the competition. Today they are vilified as robber barons, as many people focus on tales of good or bad intentions, rather than actual good results.

As for "good intentions," let's ponder them for a moment. There are few examples where the professed intentions are better than in the case of modern public education — which, of course, regularly produces atrocious results.

This school year Nevada will spend about $5 billion providing ineffective and uncompetitive education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Nevada's graduation rate is 56 percent — the lowest in the nation — while the drop-out rate is nearly double the national average. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Nevada ranks in the bottom 10 states for math and reading scores. NAEP scores also expose a large achievement gap between whites and minorities.

Even Nevada's college-bound seniors perform below the national average on the SAT college-entrance exam. Poor K-12 education leaves numerous students unprepared for college, contributing to the embarrassingly poor four-year graduation rates of 11 percent at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and 15 percent at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Despite these realities, Nevada lawmakers passed no serious reforms during this year's legislative session. Instead, they increased funding for the Distributive School Account by $336 million, with $6.7 million to supplement early-childhood education and $290 million to fund classroom-size reduction.

These programs benefit the unions and adult workers, but not the students. Research shows that gains from pre-K and other early-childhood-education programs disappear before middle school. What does have a powerful impact on student achievement, research proves, are highly effective teachers — an effect that is 10 to 20 times greater than that of small classroom sizes.

Yet, again, state legislators made no effort at all to identify, attract or reward high-quality teachers. Nevada still has no real alternative teacher-certification program, no merit pay to reward good teachers, and union contracts still make it nearly impossible to fire bad teachers. Worst of all, state law prohibits teacher evaluations based on student achievement.

Nevada easily could do much, much better. Charter schools as well as tax credits for businesses that fund educational scholarships can provide equal or better education at lower cost. The Washington, D.C. voucher program produced significant reading gains for students, while costing just $7,500 per pupil in a district that currently spends more than $24,000 on each student. Florida's corporate tuition tax-credit program provides 23,000 low-income students with scholarships of up to $3,950 — far below state per-pupil spending. Not only do these programs save substantial amounts of money, they are effective and popular with parents and students.

Some people, however, see public schools primarily as job centers for adults, rather than sites for genuine education of children. Not surprisingly, bills proposing special-needs vouchers, tuition tax credits and corporate tuition scholarships for Nevada children didn't even get second looks in committee.

The factors that bring success in the private sector — innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, competition and reward for merit — are often quietly vilified in public education. However, signs that this may change are beginning to emerge.

The Obama administration is encouraging states to lift restrictions on charter schools, to embrace merit pay and to use student data to evaluate teacher performance. The Clark County School District is experimenting with empowerment schools, which offer local principals and teachers greater autonomy over their classrooms and budgets — an important departure from the status quo, under which central-office bureaucrats ration teachers, textbooks and supplies as they see fit.

Empirical evidence supporting these education reforms is mounting, and the consensus — among minorities and other Democratic Party constituencies — is that vouchers, tax credits and other reforms work.

Will the state of Nevada at last make changes in 2011?

Only if Nevada parents and business people mobilize and make it do so.

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