The devil dances a jig

Karen Gray

Why does Nevada education always seem to end up at the bottom of the barrel? Two bill draft requests coming out of the Interim Legislative Committee on Education show why.

BDR 297 was perhaps the more surprising. Since the 2007 Legislature, charter schools have been in the limelight, even earning a dedicated committee meeting in February. Out of that session emerged a consensus that Nevada would create an 18th school district – called the Nevada Charter School Institute (NCSI) – to oversee charter schools.

Although discussion was intense at times, after various concessions and agreements it was agreed the institute would be completely independent and operate autonomously, overseeing Nevada's charter schools statewide. This was not in doubt – it was the entire premise behind the institute.

Nevertheless, when the committee convened to finalize the bill's language, even the strongest proponents of the institute couldn't agree among themselves whether to support it.

According to the bill-draft's summary, the institute is to be an independent entity, with a board that has rule-making authority. The summary also says that Nevada law granting authority to the State Board of Education to sponsor charter schools is to be repealed, with the institute instead serving as the "local education agency" (LEA) for charters, which it can approve, revoke or refuse to renew.

But don't be fooled by the BDR's summary. If the devil is always in the details, he was certainly dancing a jig in this bill.

Take, for example, the flow chart presented by the Nevada Department of Education to explain its interpretation of the bill. According to that chart, while the institute would review and adopt all regulations concerning charter schools statewide (with input and recommendations from local school districts and Nevada colleges), it would then forward them to the state board for approval.

This little stipulation – new to some – did not go unnoticed. It left one legislator, Sen. Barbara Cegavske, asking exactly how much autonomy and rule-making authority the institute board would really have.

The chart also revealed that State Department of Education staffers still expect to review charter applications and then forward those they deem acceptable on to the institute (or to a school district or college, which also can sponsor charter schools). This expectation appears to be in opposition to the whole point of establishing a separate, independent charter school board, as it would become subordinate to the existing DOE bureaucracy.

BDR 297 wasn't the only bill subverted that day. Bill Draft Request 301 would have reinstated some version of Senate Bill 540 from the 2007 session, which passed the Senate but died in Assembly Ways and Means Committee. The purpose of SB 540 was to reform the confused, spaghetti-like structure at the state level of K-12 public education governance.

Nevada's legislature has long recognized that our school system is broken – even the Interim Legislative Committee on Education concedes that fact. But for some reason, no real success in restructuring the system has ever emerged out of the Legislature. True, in 1997 the Nevada Education Reform Act (NERA) did get passed. However, the Act was a band-aid, which, after 10 years, has become another part of the oppressive, sprawling problem.

Senate Bill 540 sought to address this issue, consistently with the intent behind NERA, by establishing clear lines of accountability and authority throughout Nevada's currently incoherent slew of state education agencies, education commissions and councils, including the education department itself.  

Bill Draft Request 301 would have given the governor an authoritative role in Nevada education, making someone – the highest elected leader in the state – finally politically accountable to the people of the state for the successful reform of K-12 education. Not only would another seat on the State Board of Education be reserved for either the governor or his appointee, but the power to name the superintendent of public instruction would have moved from the state board to the office of the governor. Additionally, some of the commissions created by NERA would now become advisory councils to the State Board of Education.

After more than 10 years of acknowledging a broken system, the committee, by way of BDR 301, had the chance to take the problem, once and for all, by the horns. Not only would the bill draft have unified all the tentacles that make up our governance structure, but it also would have created some checks and balances.

However, motions to pass some sort of restructuring failed. Instead, the committee voted to introduce a resolution that would require a study on the soundness and efficiency of Nevada's governance structure – yes, after more than 10 years acknowledging a problem, we're going to do a study.

Our legislature has mastered a system that feeds the devil – it invites him to jig around in the details, ensuring spirited and lively debates, for years and years. Then, when the issue is finally at a point of do or die, it feeds him a banquet of parental demoralization by … merely … doing … one … more … study.

Is it any wonder that Nevada resides at the bottom of every education barrel?

Karen Gray is an education researcher with the Nevada Policy Research Institute.