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March 4, 2015

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Governor’s adviser weighs in on fixes for education system

Lobbyist Pete Ernaut

Lobbyist Pete Ernaut

One of Gov. Brian Sandoval’s closest advisers says Nevada’s education system must be fixed, including penalizing poor teachers and principals and creating fewer rural school districts.

Nevada has “a confused and bureaucratic system that is not serving students, parents, teachers or administrators well,” said Pete Ernaut, who has had the governor’s ear since their days at UNR and served in the Legislature with him.

In an interview this week, Ernaut said:

• The state education system’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t allow for underperformers to be penalized or removed. He would support millions of dollars for computer systems to allow for greater accountability for teachers, principals and schools.

• The state should consider consolidating the 16 school districts other than Clark County (where three-quarters of students live).

• The public school system, including Clark County, should use construction money for operating expenses at a time when few, if any, schools are being built. He said there might be hundreds of millions of dollars available.

• He does not think the Clark County School District, as it contends, faces a nearly $200 million budget deficit, even before the state considers funding cuts to help balance the overall budget.

• The Nevada System of Higher Education should be given greater freedom to raise tuition and other student fees, thereby allowing it greater autonomy from the state in how it spends money.

• Cuts may hurt professors, but they should remember they got generous contracts and benefits for the past 20 years.

• The popular Millennium Scholarship will need more private funding because revenue from its principal source, tobacco taxes, is falling. Eligibility standards, such as GPAs, may have to be raised.

Now is the time, with school officials able to step back from the rush of construction, to address these fundamental issues, Ernaut said.

“Up until 2007, education in Nevada was a significant challenge, mainly due to growth,” he said. “I don’t think Nevada ever got a chance to plan our education system. It was more triage than anything else.

“If there’s a silver lining to this Great Recession, it’s our ability to exhale, take a moment and really look at what’s broken and see what needs to be fixed.”

Ernaut emphasized that he did not speak for Sandoval, but has spent much of his adult life developing views on education.

Ernaut, who was former Gov. Kenny Guinn’s chief of staff, is a principal at R&R Partners, a dominant marketing and lobbying firm, and was an adviser in Sandoval’s campaign for governor.

Jeff Weiler, the district’s chief financial officer, said that using construction funds for general operating expenses, as Ernaut proposes, would trigger legal issues.

Moreover, a large portion of that money, nearly $500 million, is for debt service. “We have to pay the mortgage,” Weiler said.

Dan Klaich, higher education chancellor, said he agrees with the argument for greater system autonomy so public colleges and universities could manage their own money, such as raising tuition and charging different fees for different majors.

“But that transition can’t be just pushing us off a cliff,” Klaich said. “I understand where all this is going, but we have got to be careful.”

Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association, the union that represents most of the district’s teachers, disagrees with Ernaut’s statement on bad teachers.

“He obviously has not been informed of systems already in place that address underperforming teachers,” Murillo said.

Here are excerpts from Ernaut’s interview with the Sun:

What do you mean by more accountability?

The single biggest challenge is that it doesn’t allow for underperforming teachers and administrators and others to be weeded out of the system.

Experts say it would cost $20 million to pay for computer databases to provide greater accountability. Is it worth it?

It’s a very important goal. It’s pretty hard to manage what you don’t have data on. Twenty-million dollars is not a huge amount when you consider $1.3 billion is spent on K-12.

Why do you want to use money for operating expenses that is set aside for school construction?

If you’re the taxpayer and there are millions, and in some cases hundreds of millions of dollars, in a capital account when there are no plans, even in the major school districts, to build any new schools, it would seem to me that rather than have schoolteachers laid off or drastic program cuts, you would want to deploy that money. You can’t harm debt service and you shouldn’t use money set aside for maintenance. You don’t want to cut your nose off to spite your face.

What changes do you see in higher education?

There’s an opportunity to create a more autonomous, independent, higher education system, as in many other states. As it exists today, our Board of Regents can’t even set tuition levels without permission from the Legislature. State government can’t continue to fund 80 percent of the university system.

Professors contend that their salaries are being cut, and their health care is significantly more expensive. How do you feel about that?

In the past 20 years, the ... higher education system has enjoyed tremendous growth in revenue support from the state, until the past couple of years. The salary and benefit packages have been generous. So professors have definitely been valued. You can’t have it both ways. When there’s an economic downturn in the state and the state is hurting and they have to make tough but necessary cuts, then you can’t sound the alarm and forget how you’ve been treated for the past 20 years.

What is the future of the Millennium Scholarships that you helped champion?

The future is bright but the scholarships will have to be modified. One of the limitations of the scholarship is that the funding mechanism is the tobacco tax, and that’s going down because people are quitting smoking. I hope this Legislature can endow it. It’s probably the most substantial education program in the history of our state. But the money part of it is a declining asset, and they might have to modify eligibility standards.

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  1. The Governor wants to change the Nevada Constitution to use public money to fund religious and private schools. The GOP reads the Constitution in Congress, talks about what the Founding Fathers intended, then do just the opposite.

    Also from the GOP take note, that military, police and prison spending are not part of the cut backs. They will need many uneducated young who can't find jobs to fill the ranks of the next surge.

  2. THIS guy is one of the Governor's CLOSEST advisers?

    Looks like it's a-gonna be a lo-o-o-ong 4 years ahead of us.

    3 basic motivational drives: need, fear and inspiration

    Fear-driven motivation is the poorest choice.

    Punish teachers and principals, huh? idea?

  3. In some cases here, it sounds like those "advising" the new governor are reinventing the wheel. There already exists a rigorous evaluation system for teachers, with plenty of paperwork and technology spent with taxpayer dollars behind it.

    It would be an absolute violation of PUBLIC TRUST, to take money that taxpayers specifically VOTED IN AN ELECTION ON for only school building use, and reappropriate it to whatever suits the governor and his people. That is a huge NO NO, and lawsuits will COST TAXPAYERS money to fight the governor, et al. What would be next, if he gets away doing this? An electio already decided and dedicated these funds!

    What continues to be avoided is the 40+years of lawmakers not changing the laws to TAX the BROTHELS. That act alone would bring in sustainable millions each year and help clean up the illegal sex trade going on prolifically in the public's shadows. And this would NOT be TAXing citizens at large in Nevada, only a specific few.

    Now more than ever, the elite need to be cognizant of those who are living paycheck to paycheck, who typically are NOT the people at the top, due to them not being able to access the means to get to the top because of financial restraints. Their spirit is willing, but their bankroll is weak.

    So we need to be eyeballing those at the TOP, trim the fat and excess there before continuing to harm the less fortunate underclass. Back in the 1980s, there was monumental research exposing the rise of "class stratification" in our country. Equal opportunity is currently being chiseled away. Is that direction we want our country and state to go?

  4. Mr Ernaut says that higher education faculty have received "generous contracts and benefits" from the state. But this isn't about generosity; its about the state's self-interest.

  5. Education funding is inadequate. Raised tuition will likely yield a more privileged class of students and more ignorance in the general population. Need to recall the new governor before he destroys the state.

  6. Nevada's system of education is an asset of enormous potential benefit to the state. Good education trumps low taxes as a lure to industry, so when you reform education, you get a two-fer: an educated citizenry and a thriving economy. What's not to like? But so far it appears the new Governor and the new legislature will just be tinkering with our current underperforming system. Trusting to politicians to trim the sails will just continuing our tradition of mediocrity. If Nevada could truly offer a superior education -- rank among the ten best states, let's say -- Industry will flock here and we will flourish.

    Yes, that would be hard, politically, financially and other ways too. But there's no easy way out of our decline. It's going to be hard any way you look at it (and for the other states too), and the upside is huge.

    In the 20th century Nevada gave our nation legal gambling, convenient divorces and licensed brothels. In the 21st century let's lead the way in education.

  7. The Governor wants to take bond money that was raised in Clark County to build schools to now pay for current payroll. If we had Home Rule, the County Commissioners could transfer that money to pay for Clark County roads, and keep capital improvement money capital improvement money. But NOOOOOOOO the no new taxes governor will raid the coffers of a well run county to bolster the horrific negligence THREE CONSECUTIVE REPUBLICAN GOVERNORS will have wrought on the golden goose of Southern Nevada. It's time to stop laying. Once Home Rule is instituted, Carson City becomes as important to Clark County as Springfield is important to Chicago. The time is NOW!

  8. " The state education system's biggest problem is that it doesn't allow for underperformers to be penalized or removed."

    Get a CLUE, you bonehead.
    Where is your corroborating data, Mr. Advisor?
    Can you back that claim up with... ANYTHING???

    People want to point to one simple thing and say,
    "LOOK! There's your problem, RIGHT THERE!"
    Educational outcomes are a complicated milieu that precludes naming a single source as a "biggest problem" hindering success...
    BUT... if I had to choose one to start with, I'd look in the mirror!!!

    *** Pete Ernaut is not exactly an unbiased, "Educational Expert".

    "Pete Ernaut, Principal, R&R Partners
    Former assemblyman and chief of staff for former Gov. Kenny Guinn, he was a stand-up comedian and
    is known for his towel-snapping wit. Clients encompass all the big hitters, including GAMING & MINING."

  9. raising the cost of tuition during a recession? hhmmm...sounds like the middle class has to accept more debt to move

  10. Dr. Brown,

    I don't see how this that is in the state's interest. Higher education spending or rankings are not correlated with economic growth (although Dr. Veddar finds it negative) or with population migration. I did find a negative relationship between being ranked in the US News and World Report Top 100 and unemployment (being ranked in the top 100 meant your state was likely to have a higher unemployment rate).

    In all likelihood we are oversubscribed and overpaying for higher education.

  11. That said, I don't see how it would cost $20 million to create a system of accountability for K-12 education. Maybe a million or $2. Seems inflated.

    Even still, that is a paltry sum considering the state blows $290 million a year on class size reduction which has very little likelihood of benefiting students. In fact - great teachers (which this accountability is intended to identify) are 10 to 20 times more effective than small class sizes. So spending a 10th of the money to get 20 times the result is a smart investment.

  12. I don't think Patrick wants an educated population, so he can lie to them with numbers.

  13. There are lies, damned lies and statistics.
    Mark Twain

  14. Ms. McGraw,

    and there are people who use platitudes instead of making factual points...

    1) UNLV employs more administrators per 100 students than instructors. UNLV grew administrators per 100 students faster than the student body while decreasing the number of instructors per 100 students between 1993 and 20007.

    2) state subsidies plus tuition make Nevada's institutions of higher education 15th best funded in the nation

    3) Dr. Eric Hanushek in a paper for the liberal Brookings Institution found that 85 percent of studies on class size reduction show either no effect or a negative effect on student achievement.

  15. Improvelv,

    You are right, there are lots of variables, too many, in fact, for people to simply say "Invest in higher education and we can improve the economy" which is exactly what several people have done including the Lied Institute.

    All I did was look at states with universities ranked in the top 100, grouped them together and compared these states to with states having universities outside this top 100. To see how they perform I looked at migration rates and unemployment rates. Top universities did nothing for bringing people to your state over a decade long period (In fact the Ivy League states had a combined net migration of -2.5 million). Unemployment rates were also more than a point higher among states with top universities.

    Finally, Dr. Richard Veddar at the University of Ohio found a negative correlation between more investment in higher education and economic growth rates.

    Even though there are lots of variables to control for, there is more evidence to suggest that investing more money in higher education will do little to nothing at best, than there is evidence that more money to higher ed will help out the economy.

  16. Let's once again review the undeniable fact that Patrick_R_Gibbons is PAID hefty sums of money to do anything and everything to prevent any and all forms of taxation that could in any way inconvenience his ultra wealthy donors. Up to and including throwing you and those you care about under the bus. Deny it all you want Patrick but it won't change the public records showing you receiving a paycheck from NPRI.

  17. I don't like to personalize this in this way, but here goes.

    If Pete Ernaut would like to talk with me about my salary and benefits after 15 years of full-time teaching at CSN, seven books, scads of popular and scholarly articles, and a lot of community involvement, and he looks me in the eye and tells me that I'm being paid in a way commensurate with what I have accomplished, I will be glad to look him in the eye and call him a liar, and I will happily put a modifier before the word liar.