The Big Sleep

Steven Miller

Republican state legislators are being accused of a blasphemous absence of reverence for the Transcendent Divinity of Nevada’s public-school apparatus.

Would that it were so.

In actuality, the Rs have been regular hat-doffing peasantry before the Cult of the Sacred Bovine. When this session’s proposed $2 billion education budget came over from the state Senate for Assembly approval, lower-chamber Republicans tried to pass the budget out of committee.

But the Ds wouldn’t have it. Insisting instead that the education bill had to be lashed to the mast of their proposal for a Nevada income tax (and, thus, a state IRS), assembly Democrats used their committee majority to defeat passage of the education budget.

It was a transparently cynical exercise in extortion—to be able to say, later, that the Rs had “voted against education” if they voted against the Ds’ income tax scheme.

Thus, just this Tuesday, Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins issued a press release, shamelessly asserting, “It is time for a small handful of legislators to stop holding our schools hostage ….”

The deeper irony here is that Nevada’s schools do such a pathetic job that their budgets should be held “hostage.”

For years it’s been common knowledge that 30 to 40 percent of state high school grads must take remedial English or math when they enter college or university. With these students, Nevada public schools clearly have failed in their most basic mission.

But the full implication of those figures never gets acknowledged—or even discussed—by state politicians and the government school establishment.

Consider: Nevada has the nation’s lowest percentage of high school graduates who go on to college—less than 40 percent. Yet almost certainly, those students have higher academic qualifications than the 60-percent-plus who do not even enter college.

What does that mean? It means that the proportion of Nevada high school graduates who leave school lacking basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills is almost certainly well over 50 percent! Add in the 20 percent of Nevada students who never even finish high school—the highest proportion of dropouts in the U.S.—and the proportion of failure to success of the state’s public schools almost certainly exceeds 70 percent!

The human tragedy here is massive.

What makes it even worse is that this calamity has long been not only tolerated in Nevada, but regularly exploited.

An old saw says: “If you do the job right the first time, it’s done. But if you do it wrong 14 times in a row, you’ve got job security.” Here in Nevada, we have had for many years a school establishment that—Legislature after Legislature—successfully parlays chronic failure into ever-greater financial reward.

Seven years ago, in a 1995 study, the Nevada Policy Research Institute revealed that between 1983 and 1992 state spending on education had increased 194 percent—though enrollment during the same period had increased by only 40 percent.

In inflation-adjusted dollars, this was a massive per-pupil increase of 54 percent for the 10-year period. And spending continued to rise in the next decade. Today Nevada stands right at the midpoint of the states in terms of total spending per enrolled student. Among the 11 Western states, Nevada is fourth.

And yet, as noted above, the state’s educational product is abysmal.

It’s time to attend to an important anomaly here.

In virtually every sector of our economy other than public schools we see relentless pursuit of higher and higher quality—coupled with ever-greater cost-efficiencies and productivity. But we don’t see that in public education.

The reason: incentives. The other sectors of our economy are private and free, and thus their enterprises hustle to serve their customers. This alone is their route to success.

On the other hand, our public schools—as the late AFT boss Albert Shanker acknowledged—are essentially socialist factories. There, the most powerful stakeholders are administrators and teacher union bosses. Actual customers—parents and their children—have little real leverage.

Thus, the real de facto mission of government schools becomes:

1) Keeping bureaucrats happy,

2) Keeping union bosses happy,

3) Employing ever-more people—inefficiently—thus increasing the statewide political power of school bureaucrats and union bosses, and

4) Anaesthetizing the public with huge taxpayer-funded PR operations.

Serving the individual educational needs of children and the desires of their parents? Much lower on the totem pole.

That such a system still has controlling power in the Silver State suggests that the anesthesia has become, for the political class, an addictive narcotic.

Steven Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

Steven Miller

Senior Vice President, Nevada Journal Managing Editor

Steven Miller is Nevada Journal Managing Editor, Emeritus, and has been with the Institute since 1997.

Steven graduated cum laude with a B.A. in Philosophy from Claremont Men’s College (now Claremont McKenna). Before joining NPRI, Steven worked as a news reporter in California and Nevada, and a political cartoonist in Nevada, Hawaii and North Carolina. For 10 years he ran a successful commercial illustration studio in New York City, then for five years worked at First Boston Credit Suisse in New York as a technical analyst. After returning to Nevada in 1991, Steven worked as an investigative reporter before joining NPRI.