Las Vegas Sun

July 30, 2014

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The B.S.:

Bruce Spotleson: Our education system is caught up in communication issues

When it comes to funding schools, the challenge is in perceptions.

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Bruce Spotleson

Even though Clark County’s school system is at risk, citizens don’t go to bat for education as they have in other states recently.

It’s not exactly a surprise, but according to Scarborough Research, personal mobile devices now are being used more often for things like texting, email and photography than for phone calls. In today’s world, we’re all in touch with everything, almost all of the time, wherever we are.

The fact that we’re all thumbs-deep in information transmission makes it all the more interesting that so many of today’s problems still can be attributed to a lack of communication.

Northern Nevada doesn’t understand Southern Nevada. NFL owners don’t understand the players. The Democrats don’t get the Republicans. And so it goes. The current list of misunderstandings would flow beyond this page.

Our education system is caught up in its own communication issues, as we plan the future and contemplate historic budget decisions.

By now, you’d have to have been in seclusion to have avoided all the discussion surrounding this issue. And even if you didn’t want to listen, you heard it. This far into the legislative session, you know the arguments well.

But all the talking hasn’t prevented the train wreck. Despite the blogs, tweets, editorials and speeches pushing new taxes on one hand or more budget slashing on the other, the issues still haven’t been resolved to anyone’s satisfaction. Communication in every form, but nothing’s changed.

It seems we do all at least agree on the fact that education is important to a society, but after that, things sort of fall apart. Given that the topic is so fundamental, so critical, how can that be?

The explanation may lie in all of our perceptions. Because when it comes to contentious issues, perceptions win out over even the clearest communications every single time.

The perception is the result of a growing belief—all too common and vocalized in this part of the state—that our education system doesn’t work, that it is bloated with an ineffective bureaucracy, and that it is not providing an adequate education. Although UNLV has had its own set of critics, this perception seems mostly connected to the Clark County School District.

As with other sorts of perceptions, this is based at least in part on reality. High school graduation rates and achievement performance test comparisons have not reflected well on CCSD over many years now, and recent administrations have not done a particularly effective job at all of enhancing the image of the school district or of effectively justifying its many executive positions.

Such perceptions have been nudged along by the tilted editorial opinions of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the folks who introduced the pejorative term “educrats” into the dialogue. It’s the word R-J editorial writers deridingly use to describe school office workers they see as utterly unnecessary to the Clark County School District.

Now, any reasonable person likely would acknowledge that few government agencies are run as efficiently as those in the private sector. Waste, expense and low productivity tend to be recurrent problems. But while government’s well-noted weaknesses rarely serve as an excuse for gutting the system, they may very well do so this time.

Swamped with rhetoric and historic clichés in a budget-whacking environment, Southern Nevadans have proved quite willing to believe that sufficient funding will not make for adequate schools. The governor has called upon this perception as yet another basis for funding cuts.

And so we end up at impasse. Even though their very own school system is at risk, citizens don’t go to bat for education as they have in other states recently, because of the perception that the system is so broken, and that additional funding would simply mean throwing good money after bad.

As the chief executives of organizations so fundamental to our society, both CCSD Superintendent Dwight Jones and UNLV President Neal Smatresk have big enough hurdles ahead of them. Foremost among them, though, may be the challenge of shaping the opinions of taxpayers.

Such trust is a prerequisite to any broad public support for education. It takes a while to change a reputation—something neither Jones nor Smatresk has much of—and the time to start is now.

Despite their many other priorities, our educators must begin to change perceptions of their effectiveness in Southern Nevada. Only then will they be able to build a groundswell for doing what is right by our schools and their students.

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