It is no secret that Nevada public schools are failing its students. The state’s schools are ranked 49th in the United States for educational attainment. Is there hope schools in Nevada could ever be better?
Frances Floresca, Director of Education Policy Initiatives at Nevada Policy, recently appeared on the Kevin Wall Radio Show to discuss the specific ways Nevada could see an improvement in its schools.
Watch the full interview below.
Read the Full TranscriptKevin Wall: One of the key issues for voters going to the polls 33 days from now, or perhaps earlier, 16 days from early voting, or mail-in ballots should be going out most probably next week, it’s the issue of education. And how do we improve education here in the state of Nevada? Francis Floresca is the Director of Education Policy Initiatives for Nevada Policy Research Institute, better known as NPRI, and she joins us. Francis, first of all, thanks for joining us on the program.
How do we move the needle on education? I keep waiting for all these assembly and state senate races to come up with the silver bullet, so to speak. How do we move the needle? How is it that we improve from 50th and 49th?
Frances Floresca: Unfortunately, yes, we are one of the lowest in education in the entire country and how we can move the needle is by promoting more education options for students and their families. Unfortunately there is a difficulty of getting more schools, including charter schools and private schools in the state. And of course we have a lot of issues getting educational savings accounts in the state, which will allow more flexibility for families to choose whatever school their child would like to go to.
And hopefully we can address that in this upcoming legislative session. And hopefully we get more people on board with it.
Kevin Wall: What is it that’s standing in the way of what you didn’t use the words, I’ll use the word school choice? What is it that’s standing in our way?
Frances Floresca: We have a strong teacher union presence in this state.We can hear Democrats and Republicans, we both hear them talk about having more school choice and more education options even, yes, on both sides. Even Democrats won’t say school choice necessarily, but you’ll hear them say students shouldn’t be forced to be stuck in the school district or school where they can’t succeed. The zip code shouldn’t stop them from going to whatever school they want to go to. But because of the teachers’ union and the stronghold they have, unfortunately, it’s harder to push more of that education opportunity in this state.
Kevin Wall: Francis Floresca joining us. She is the Director of Education Policy Initiatives for NPRI. I’ve been espousing going around the legislature and going directly to the people for about three or four years. And I guess my question is, where are some of these initiatives we’ve been hearing about? I know some of them have been challenged in court. What is the latest that you know about that?
Frances Floresca: So here in Nevada it was recently was struck down. The statutory and constitutional valid initiatives for expanding education savings accounts were struck down by the Supreme Court, mainly in part due to the funding issue.
Interestingly we had challenges from the Rogers Foundation push against that mainly because they said, “Oh, education, specifically public education, is underfunded.” Interestingly, if we had education savings accounts, it wouldn’t take away from the public schools. What it would do is give around 90% of that funding for families who decide to opt out of public education and give 10% back to the public schools. So basically, if there are less students in the public schools, they end up having more money and it benefits both parties overall.
Kevin Wall: We have a teacher shortage in our state and in our community. 3000 statewide, a thousand just here in Clark County. You wrote extensively about merit pay and, and how it can help us not just recruit, but also retain teachers in our state. Can you talk a little bit about why merit pay is so important?
Frances Floresca: Absolutely. Merit pay definitely has several benefits. It puts a lot of extra money in the pockets of our best teachers, and it in increases teacher productivity. And basically once this boosts teacher retention, it also improves students in academic performance.
And if we have merit pay in the state we would definitely be able to retain those teachers much better. And we can do this by introducing a data tracking system that will enable analysts to identify teachers with their best students. And having this would show teacher effectiveness and it could also help them determine how to direct a child’s education and see where a child needs help in the long run.
Tennessee implemented this back in 1993 and it showed that teachers were the very important factor in student academic progress.
Kevin Wall: Let me just ask you we always talk about recruitment and why it’s so difficult to recruit to this state. This is a problem that is widespread around the nation. It’s not just restricted to Nevada. My question is, how do we retain teachers? Because correct me if I’m wrong, and I know you’ve been following this story a lot. The whole notion that teachers run away from the industry. They’re getting out of the business. How do we retain teachers?
Frances Floresca: Well, unfortunately, we’ve been seeing so many teachers leave the classroom That basically is starting because around the country, they’re citing low pay, they’re citing long hours, and they’re concerned about student behavior and safety, as well as politically divisive policies pushed by administrators and teachers. And how we can re continue to retain those teachers is by giving them better merit pay, as I mentioned earlier. And that would be for the better teachers. And you can also have more accountability. And that’s where the longitudinal data tracking system comes in.
For example, in the state of Texas, Dallas Independent School District introduced a merit pay initiative for their top teachers. And when the teachers were evaluated based on student achievement, their teacher performance and student experience survey showed that the teachers were staying in the school district more. It was around 93% of teachers who receive those higher ratings were able to stay in the school district. And their other top level teachers, master level teachers, those were able to be retained. So if we had that system here in Nevada, and especially in Clark County School District, we could see more teacher retainment.
Of course there is such a thing as increase in salaries and that can be done if we can reallocate funds better. As we saw the superintendent just received this huge raise and he’s going to be getting paid around $395,000. We’re always talking about how teachers don’t get paid much and how public schools are underfunded, but it really is a lot of misspending and almost no accountability for education budgets, and teachers not getting paid enough as well as better safety and accountability in the classrooms is why teachers are leaving. So if we can work on that, it would be better for the school district overall.
Kevin Wall: Francis, do we need to audit the Clark County School District? We’ve got a number of politicians that have been calling for that and even some Democrats that would support that kind of a move. Do you think we’ll come upon an audit and if so, what do you think we’ll find?
Frances Floresca: Well, if we look into an audit, we’ll see what our school district are spending money on. Having an audit is a good thing, but in the end, we can’t just do an audit. We need to do something with the budget and change some things up in the budget.
In fact, actually it’s interesting that you mentioned the budget because recently Clark County School District spent around $800,000 on so-called social emotional learning with the Panorama Education Incorporation. And a lot of this is not even really related to social wellbeing. A lot of it is focused on the divisive diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. And just a few months ago the school district also signed a three year contract with the Anti-Defamation League for $75,000 on so-called anti-bias training.
So when you hear that, it’s like, wait, we have a problem in our budget. But let’s also look to solutions on how we can fix the funding and get that budget better so we can get our students better educated, our teachers better paid, and overall retain the teachers in the school.
Kevin Wall: I have been dying to talk with you because I read your stuff on, on NPRI’s website and you do a great job of covering education. I want to know how the same school board, the board of trustees, that fired Jesus Jara, had his butt out on the street, now is not just bringing him back, but they, they’re bringing him back with a three year extension, $75,000 raise per year. Can you explain what has happened on the board of trustees that suddenly the guy that couldn’t get it done now is the new hot thing in education and we got to give him all this money? Explain how that happened.
Frances Floresca: It’s very interesting. We’ve seen a lot happen in the last year with Superintendent Jara. As you said, he got fired, then rehired all of a sudden. He received a high rating from the school district board, despite us seeing low scores from the students, teachers leaving the school district and students not feeling safe in the classroom. And parent trust is very low in the school district. And this is a bipartisan issue. I see parents on Twitter and social media, then talking to them in the community, say, “Hey, we don’t we don’t approve of the job that Superintendent Jara is doing here in Clark County.”
And I find it ridiculous that he gets a raise even a year after he gets fired. And $395,000, that’s way more than our governor makes, and that’s only $5,000 less than the president of our country makes.
And speaking of accountability, we also have seen some people talk about splitting up the school district to have more accountability. And we also want more people to be more responsive. But also if the school district gets split up, there won’t necessarily be accountability right away. There may be responsiveness, but that accountability will have to be the next step as that happens.
Kevin Wall: Francis, do you like the idea of, of breaking up the school district? I mean, it’s the fifth largest school district in the country and it’s underperforming big time. Do you think changing the size of the district would help?
Frances Floresca: Well, the school district breakup situation can actually be pretty controversial with a lot of people. I can see it both ways. So if we split up the school district, it’s still not going to be the be all, end all. It will be smaller and more attainable.
But here’s my problem. If the school district overall gets broken up, there could end up being more teachers unions and a possibility of more higher administrative costs.
In the state of Illinois, we see so many school districts and they have a comparable school district, the Chicago City school district. What they have there is that they have like around 800 plus school districts, but those school districts have been consolidated together. The Illinois Policy group has argued that because there are too many school districts, it makes public education more inefficient and more public school districts doesn’t necessarily mean better. But having the school district consolidated has allowed them to lower costs and lower tax burdens.
Of course Clark County School District, if it was divided, we may have a different situation. We don’t know. We’ll have to see what happens with this referendum in the future.
But I also see in Florida where they haven’t had to divide up their school despite there being some efforts to do so. And they also have a very similar size for one of their school districts, Miami-Dade. They have been able to make it easy to have charter schools and more education and school choice options. And that hasn’t happened here in Nevada.
So in the end, we really need more education options in our state. We need more charter schools, we need more private schools, and we need to have that kind of competition. And in the end, you’ll see public schools, charter schools, and other schools start to compete with each other.
Kevin Wall: Will they compete with the big boys, the Clark County School District? I mean, the assumption has always been that if you break up the school district or you give more school choice that it will force the district to improve. That’s an assumption that we’re making. Is that an assumption you would make or, or do you think it’s not necessarily true?
Frances Floresca: It’s interestingly necessarily so, but also not necessarily. So my concern is like is basically seeing a lot these school districts divide themselves up. They’re going to be schools that are in less fortunate areas, and then families who can move to the wealthier and better schools.
Hopefully we’ll see some improvements within those lower level, underperforming schools and see some change there. So I do see some pluses and minuses to both sides, but overall I would like to see more accountability and more actions from our school district here.
Kevin Wall: It is great to have you on.