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April 17, 2014

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A comparison of the gubernatorial candidates’ education plans

PAYING FOR PROGRESS

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rory Reid’s plan assumes that changing how schools operate will save hundreds of millions of dollars. Republican candidate Brian Sandoval’s plan assumes there will be substantial cost savings from privatizing some school services.
Rory Reid

Rory Reid

Brian Sandoval

Brian Sandoval

Here’s where gubernatorial candidates Rory Reid and Brian Sandoval agree — the current K-12 education system is failing students and shortchanging Nevada’s prospects for a vibrant economy and an educated workforce.

Where they disagree is how an overhaul of public education should be carried out, and it will be up to voters to decide which candidate gets the chance to put his plan into action.

Democrat Reid, a Clark County commissioner, unveiled his “Leading Edge” plan in March. Republican Sandoval, a former federal judge, rolled out his “Raising the Bar” plan last week. Neither candidate has produced a blueprint for the state’s higher education system, which has undergone substantial budget cuts in the past two years, with major programs and departments to be eliminated at UNR and UNLV.

Both candidates say their K-12 plans are “revenue neutral,” meaning no new funding need be secured to put initiatives in place. But “revenue neutral” doesn’t mean their plans won’t require significant reallocation of existing funding. Both plans will also require the cooperation of the Legislature and the various school employee unions — along with a healthy dose of optimism that there will be enough money in the pot to support the various initiatives.

Reid’s plan assumes that changing how schools operate will save the state and districts hundreds of millions of dollars in administrative costs. Sandoval’s plan assumes there will be substantial cost savings from privatizing some school services, and that revenue from hotel room taxes and money currently allocated for smaller classes can be tapped to support expanding certain programs and initiatives.

Here’s how some of the central tenets of their plans match up in a side-by-side comparison:

EMPOWERMENT

Reid’s plan

The centerpiece of Reid’s K-12 initiative is to put principals, teachers and parents in charge of schools, rather than having a district’s central office steer the collective ship. This represents a seismic shift in responsibility for the daily business of education. Reid wants to create a network of “Edge” schools, where the school’s budget depends on the number of students who voluntarily enroll, which means parents will have more of a say in whether a campus succeeds. School-based management will give campus administrators control over those dollars, including staffing, curriculum and instructional decisions. The “Edge” program would be phased in, and eventually all Nevada public schools would use the same model.

Sandoval’s plan

Give local districts more control over funding decisions and expand existing empowerment school programs. Create a state-sponsored Charter Schools Institute, which would serve as a clearinghouse for new applicants to help them navigate the sponsorship process as well as provide support to existing schools.

What it could mean

There’s nothing new about the empowerment model, from which Reid draws most of his “Edge” blueprint. Clark County began its empowerment pilot program in 2006 with four elementary schools, and has since expanded it to 17 campuses. Most of the empowerment schools have shown good improvement in academic achievement. Attempts to take empowerment statewide were embraced by the Legislature in 2007, but died when the funding was pulled. Clark County continued to add campuses by relying on private partners rather than public dollars. Whether there’s enough community and parental involvement to support the “Edge” model at every school is uncertain.

Nevada's charter school law has been criticized as too restrictive, and some parents, educators and lawmakers say the state needs to take a more active role in encouraging the public school alternatives. A bill that would have created a Charter Schools Institute, modeled partly after a successful initiative in Colorado, died late in the 2009 legislative session.

STUDENTS

Reid’s plan

Student achievement would be more than just a “snapshot” based on test scores. Students also would have more choices in programs because campuses would compete for the state funding that comes with enrollment. There would be improved after-school programs and vocational training aimed at making sure students are prepared for college and the workforce.

Sandoval’s plan

Students who are not proficient in reading by the end of the third grade would be held back for remedial literacy instruction. Advanced Placement classes, gifted and talented education, dual-enrollment (where students can earn college credit while still in high school) would be expanded. The expansion would be paid for in part by the savings from privatizing some services such as food services as well as redirecting room tax revenues and class size reduction money that districts already receive.

What it could mean

Clark County School District officials support factoring growth and progress into student evaluations. The district has also invested hundreds of millions into its career and technical academies. Reid’s open enrollment plan wouldn’t help students whose families couldn’t provide transportation, raising issues of fairness.

As for Sandoval’s plan for third-graders, the district is already retaining hundreds of students annually. And “the sword cuts both ways,” Superintendent Walt Rulffes said. “There is research that shows retained students are at a much higher risk of dropping out of school. Supplemental services are a better solution.”

TEACHERS

Reid’s plan

The “Edge” model would encourage and reward creativity in the classroom. Teachers would be evaluated based on student improvement, as well as overall achievement. Teachers who work in hard-to-fill positions, as well as veteran educators who mentor rookies, could earn bonuses. Performance pay also could be earned by entire campuses rather than singling out individual teachers. Because tenure would be tied more closely to performance, and not just longevity, it would be easier for districts to dismiss those who don’t make the grade. Reid would also tie recertification to performance.

Sandoval’s plan

Eliminate tenure, and base salary schedules on performance reviews and student testing data, rather than longevity. The money saved would be used for performance pay. Teachers who agree to work in hard-to-fill positions in areas such as math, science and special education, as well as in at-risk schools, would receive bonuses. The state would make it easier for professionals from other fields to become teachers, and expand reciprocity for licensing with other states.

What it could mean

The Nevada State Education Association has said it is not opposed to using student test data as a factor in teacher evaluations, provided it is not the sole measure, and supported a recent change to state law to allow it. Nevada already has reciprocity with other states when it comes to licensing, as well as the Alternative Route to Licensure program for individuals who have a bachelor’s degree and want to enter the teaching profession.

PRINCIPALS

Reid’s plan

Like teachers, principals would be held accountable for student achievement and progress, and face removal from their positions if targets were not met. Principals would receive specialized training and ongoing professional development as they make the transition to the responsibilities of running an “Edge” campus.

Sandoval’s plan

As with teachers, tenure based on experience and longevity would be eliminated. Principals at schools that receive failing grades for two consecutive years would be replaced. The state would create a leadership academy to train new principals.

What it could mean

Although there’s been increased participation and interest in Clark County’s empowerment model, administrators say not everyone wants to participate in site-based management, and Reid’s plan would require a fundamental shift in philosophy for many individuals.

Ralph Cadwallader, executive director of the Nevada Association of School Administrators, said so far no one’s asked the state’s principals if they want the intensive additional responsibilities that come with empowerment models.

Sandoval’s proposed principal academy could help fill a void left by the elimination of the Educational Leadership Department at UNLV. But educators say they are concerned that Sandoval wants a 2 to 4 percent pay cut for state workers, including public school employees. He has also suggested tapping into the district’s reserve of capital bond funds, which were intended for new school construction and renovations, to help fill the shortfall in the state’s general fund. Principals say there are too many older campuses in the district that need major remodeling, and those bond dollars must be protected.

PARENTAL CHOICE

Reid’s plan

Schools would compete for students by offering unique programs and services. Parents would have opportunities to choose their children’s schools, rather than being bound by current zoning. Transportation, however, would not be provided under the plan.

Sandoval’s plan

Parents could use vouchers to help pay for private or parochial school tuition. Parents could also opt out of public schools that receive a “D” or “F” grade under his proposed evaluation system, with transportation provided to other public campuses. Districts with high numbers of “D” and “F” schools would have to take money from central administration to pay the transportation costs.

What it could mean

No Child Left Behind already requires districts to offer transportation to alternate schools for students who want to opt out of low-achieving Title I campuses (which receive extra federal funding to serve students from low-income households). But while tens of thousands of Clark County students qualify, only a few hundred take advantage of the option each year.

Vouchers are a touchy topic, said Kathy Christie, vice president of the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan clearinghouse for legislators.

“The kind of vouchers that tend to resonate best with the public are those for students with disabilities and students assigned to traditionally low-performing schools,” Christie said.

“Broad-based vouchers are a tough sell, because of the fear that it draws money away from public schools set up for the common good,” Christie said. And when that happens, certain at-risk populations, such as minorities and students from low-income households, “can be even less well-served than they are right now,” she said.

PRIVATIZATION

Reid’s plan

With individual campuses responsible for curriculum and the budget, the central district would provide support services including transportation, capital financing for construction and maintenance of facilities, and oversight of mandated testing. Individual “Edge” schools could decide whether to purchase supplies and certain services from the district.

Sandoval’s plan

Noneducational services such as food services, human resources and facilities management would be privatized, which he argued would save districts millions of dollars annually.

What it could mean

Clark County School District officials say privatizing food services wouldn’t actually save the district money that could be put back into classrooms because the department operates independently without money from the general fund. The district already uses outside contractors for a significant portion of its facilities and maintenance work.

ACCOUNTABILITY

Reid’s plan

Use more comprehensive measures to evaluate performance at all levels — students, staff, schools and districts. Though student test scores would be a critical factor, schools could earn credit for demonstrating growth and improvement.

Sandoval’s plan

Schools would be be given letter grades, ranging from F to A, to make it easier for parents to compare campuses. Student achievement and growth would be factors in the equation. Schools that receive top grades or improve sharply would receive additional funding.

What it could mean

Reid’s plan, to reward schools for progress, already has strong support at the local and state level. Almost from the inception of No Child Left Behind, Nevada education officials have tried, without success, to get the feds’ permission to credit schools for improvement, as well as for hitting hard-target benchmarks for student achievement. In recent months support for so-called “growth models” has gained traction, and it’s expected to be added as an option when the federal education law is reauthorized.

Sandoval’s entire plan borrows heavily from reforms already in place in Florida, including the letter-grade system for individual schools, retaining third-graders and giving parents more choice in their children’s educational options.

The results in Florida have been significant, said Matthew Ladner, vice president of research at the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, who has studied Nevada’s public education system. On the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as the “Nation’s Report Card,” Hispanic students in Florida tied or outperformed 31 other statewide averages. Florida’s black and Hispanic students are outperforming all students overall in Nevada, Ladner said.

IN SUMMATION...

Both candidates claim their plans represent innovation, reform and accountability — the buzzwords that parents and the wider community are eager to hear, said UNLV associate political science professor David Fott. But although both emphasize parental choice, Fott was surprised there weren’t more explicit expectations of parental involvement.

Reid’s plan offers a great deal of specificity, particularly when it comes to how local control would be implemented and students and staff would be evaluated, Fott said. His plan to place more top teachers in underperforming schools, and support them with mentoring and professional development, is also noteworthy, Fott said.

And Fott was pleased that Sandoval wanted to make it easier for other professionals to move into teaching. It’s been argued that the current process is too cumbersome, and requires individuals to take education classes that are ultimately of little use, Fott said.

But the burden is on Sandoval to prove that school vouchers would really have a significant effect, Fott said. In other states the vouchers have proven to be of little use to parents because the monetary value isn’t enough to cover the full cost of parochial or private school tuition.

Voters need to ask themselves whether the solutions to Nevada’s education crisis can be carried out without additional funding, Fott said.

And if the voters decide more money is needed, Fott said, “They then have to ask themselves: Who is the more likely candidate to make that happen?”

CORRECTION: This story originally attributed comments from David Fott to David Damore. | (July 7, 2010)

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