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November 26, 2014

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Guinn stresses value of education

Gov. Kenny Guinn could have been addressing a PTA meeting, a teachers' union or a group of high school teachers about the importance of education.

Instead, Guinn spoke to a group of casino executives-in-training in an MGM Mirage corporate training office behind the sprawling MGM Grand.

"My biggest concern is education," Guinn told MGM Mirage managers. "If you don't have an educated workforce, you will fall by the wayside. Education is an equalizer."

Wednesday, Guinn became the latest public official to address students at the MGM Grand University Leadership Institute, a six-month management training program aimed at cultivating rising stars within MGM Mirage. The training program was founded by MGM Grand President Gamal Aziz in 2002.

The Republican governor has been criticized by some in his own party for pushing higher wages for teachers as well as education programs. Conservatives have called him a "Republican in name only" and a "tax and spend" politician.

Guinn, whose term ends in January 2007, has struggled to fund social programs in a state with no personal or corporate income taxes and an environment where tax increases are almost sacrilege.

Many successful people have benefited from government or privately funded aid programs, said Guinn, who was asked about his lingering concerns and legacy as governor.

Even so, some people aren't supportive of financial aid and have an "I got mine, now let them get theirs" attitude, he said.

Guinn, the former chairman of PriMerit Bank and the former president and chairman of Southwest Gas, is a wealthy man.

To make his point Wednesday, he spoke of his humble beginnings as the son of a farm worker. Growing up in a small, central California town, his family lived "paycheck to paycheck," he said.

Guinn's break came in the form of a football scholarship to Fresno State University, where he graduated with bachelor's and master's degrees in physical education. He taught school in Fresno and moved to Las Vegas in 1964, taking a job as a planner with the Clark County School District. He rose quickly, becoming superintendent in 1969.

Like other states, Nevada is struggling to educate children who in many cases don't speak English at home, Guinn said. Improving Nevada's education system isn't easy and will require help from the public and private sectors.

"I get really disgusted when people have simplistic answers to complex issues," he said.

Guinn also touted one of his biggest legacies as governor: the Millennium Scholarship, a six-year-old program that offers financial aid of up to $10,000 for high school students who maintain a certain grade-point average.

"It's a slow process, but we're making a huge difference," he said. "These kids who are getting an education are getting a lot of hope."

Nevada ranked 39th nationwide in the number of high schoolers who graduate and last in the number of students who go to college directly after graduation, according to a 2004 study. More than half of Nevada's schools are failing because they aren't making progress on federal test scores, the governor said.

Some say those results are a byproduct of the state's strong casino-based economy, where people with a high school education can get high-paying jobs parking cars or slinging drinks.

Guinn said many families still can't afford to send their children to college. Many are dropping out once they get to college because they don't have the money to stick with it, he said. People who are frugal enough to save for college may only afford to pay for one year.

Studies have shown that college graduates not only earn more money but smoke less and tend to be healthier, he said.

They end up paying more in taxes and need less preventive medicine, becoming less of a drag on state resources, he said.

People have a responsibility to give back to their communities by donating their time and resources, Guinn said.

Don't ignore the masses of low-wage workers who make the economy hum, he said. "Don't forget to look behind you to those who sweep (floors) and those who do the landscaping."

Liz Benston can be reached at 259-4077 or at [email protected]

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