Education reform has quickly become a centerpiece in Nevada's gubernatorial race.
Governor Jim Gibbons and Republican challengers Brian Sandoval and Mike Montandon all have discussed overhauling public education. And experts agree: Reforming education is imperative, because spending more money doesn't produce the results our children deserve.
The public K-12 system itself is the problem, says the National Working Group on Funding Student Learning. The group, an assembly of education researchers, includes professors from Washington, Wisconsin, Vanderbilt, Penn State, Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley.
"The connection between resources and learning has been growing weaker, not stronger," say the professors, observing that "[s]tate education finance systems were not designed with student learning in mind…"
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rory Reid seems to also be listening to the experts. His Economic Development through Great Education (EDGE) plan accurately identifies the problems facing public education in Nevada and proposes a prescription for reform that is both proper and attainable. At least as written, the EDGE approach essentially proposes replacing our Soviet-style, command-and-control bureaucratic system with market-driven education.
Under the plan, parents would be empowered to choose among competing public schools, whose funding would follow the students who enroll in that school. Principals would have greater autonomy in using the funds and operating the school, while teachers would have greater freedom to manage their classrooms. In exchange for this autonomy, the plan says, schools, teachers and principals would be held accountable to parents and policymakers for school performance.
Reid's campaign document endorses tracking student performance to determine how much students learn throughout the year. This means using value-added assessment — the fairest way to grade schools and teachers, since it looks at individual students' improvement. In effect, students compete against themselves rather than against preset benchmarks or other students. Reid's document also promises pay-for-performance rewards for excellent teachers. Tenure would only be granted when teachers have proven they can teach. Reid also favorably highlights New York City's school report card system, which grades schools A through F and subjects low-performing schools to leadership change, restructuring or closure. Adopting this system, or the similar system used in Florida, would finally allow parents and students to understand clearly how their schools stack up.
On balance, the Reid plan looks quite good. Nevada absolutely needs to stop micromanaging schools, principals and teachers. Policymakers in Nevada should be concerned with how much students learn over the course of the year and how many students graduate. The schools and teachers should be left to innovate and operate autonomously — competing to best provide the education Nevada children need.
Autonomous and accountable public schools, performance pay, tenure reform, virtual education, value-added assessment and freeing teachers from bureaucracy are all essential policies needed for proper education reform. Importantly, Rory Reid's plan recognizes the need to empower parents by giving them the right to choose among any competing public school. Reid's plan appears to genuinely embrace the idea of creating a real competitive marketplace in public education.
If Reid becomes governor, his education plan most likely will find support among Republicans. Reno Assemblyman Ty Cobb, who is running for the state Senate, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that "[i]f [Reid] is to be believed in the core principles he is mentioning, that is something that will get a very good reception from Republicans."
Cobb, however, also noted that Reid "would have to stand firm against the unions, who never want any type of accountability."
The assemblyman is correct. Teacher unions regularly fight against major reforms, even in the teeth of popular support. Reid's plan would have to go through the Nevada Legislature, where special-interest groups like teacher and administrator unions always have ample opportunities to sabotage good ideas.
What the unions want — as always — is money. According to the Review-Journal, "Lynn Warne, president of the Nevada State Education Association, was skeptical Nevada could accomplish significant reform without increasing the amount of money it spends on schools…"
Actually, the plan is revenue neutral, focusing on using existing resources more effectively. Reid appears to recognize that spending more money on the same old, broken system of education hasn't produced results. Still, as governor he would have to deal with the unions, since they most likely — if not outflanked — will work to neuter meaningful reform.
If properly written into law, the EDGE reforms would produce serious, positive achievement gains for all of Nevada's students. Candidate Reid has said the right things. Now, we need to see the fine print.
Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit http://npri.org/.