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March 1, 2015

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Nevada 3.0 - The state of education:

A missed opportunity for state’s schools

Nevada 3.0: Education

As the Legislature considers several proposals for education, the Sun asked for a variety of opinions on the state of education in Nevada. It's part of the Sun's Nevada 3.0 project, which is looking at issues confronting the state and ways to move forward. You’ll find:

• The Sun’s editorial, "Invest in schools"

• A conversation with Nevada Superintendent of Public Instruction James Guthrie

• A conversation with Clark County School District Superintendent Dwight Jones

State Sen. Scott Hammond, a public school teacher and charter school board member, writes about choices facing the state.

Ruben R. Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association, writes about what the schools need.

Judi Steele, president of the Public Education Foundation, writes about improving school leadership.

Victor Wakefield, executive director of Teach For America in the Las Vegas Valley, writes about grassroots ways to improve schools.

Another view?

Have your own opinion? Write a letter to the editor.

On Monday, education advocates and activists from across the state will meet at the Legislature for Education Awareness Day. Organized by the Nevada Education Coalition, the day is branded as a chance to bring attention to the idea that “a great education for all is the most effective means of ensuring equal opportunities for everyone.”

This view is seemingly the only idea upon which Nevada’s education establishment and corporate reformers agree. How to get there is an entirely different matter. Teachers unions and practicing educators call for improved working conditions and adequate funding, which they argue translate into better learning environments and outcomes for Nevada’s increasingly diverse student population. The business community and reform movement prefer free-market solutions such as charter schools, privatization and alternative routes to licensure, saying those options provide disenfranchised parents the opportunity and freedom to choose their way out of failing schools.

Overall, the state’s educational leaders have opted to tinker around the edges of educational reform, bringing to mind education sociologist Charles Payne’s refrain “so much reform, so little change.” Rather than discussing the long-term consequences of inadequate and inequitable school funding on our state’s schoolchildren and economy, the education-reform discourse is dominated by calls to fire teachers, expand charter schools, and recruit parents to fire teachers and expand charter schools.

The latest noncomprehensive, nontransformational idea to improve Nevada education is Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposed opportunity scholarship program, which he mentioned briefly in last month’s State of the State address. It would give tax credits to businesses that contribute to a scholarship fund. The money, he said, “will be distributed, on a means-tested basis, to students at low-performing schools for use in attending the school of their choice.” While program details remain to be seen, proponents suggest this weak variety of school vouchers will improve education results.

In a state long yearning for better educational outcomes, this proposal does nothing to address the enormous structural, systemic challenges facing Nevada’s public schools to include increasing levels of demographic change and suburban poverty coupled with declining state resources and the inadequate and inequitable funding of K-12 schools. Yet it is offered as the answer to fulfilling the empty promise of educational opportunity for so many of Nevada’s underserved children.

Imagine if the Legislature approved this program and the mess it would create. The only way we could tell whether the program was working, in comparison to the opportunities provided by traditional public schools, would be to compare scholarship student achievement with that of their traditional public school peers. This would require high-stakes testing at the schools receiving scholarship students — the scores from which would serve as measures of not only student achievement but also teacher effectiveness. Teachers must be held accountable for student performance, right? And what better way than standardized testing?

These student test results, of course, would serve as the basis for teacher pay, since teachers must be held accountable for student performance, as we hear ad nauseam. And since everything will be based on test scores, the state won’t have to bother with class-size reduction efforts. (Who needs student-teacher interaction when education is reduced to filling in bubbles on a standardized test?) Besides, as the reformers say, class size has no effect on student learning, so classes could be as large as needed. (Pack them in, save money!) What’s more, there would be no need to account for a student’s poverty level, home language or ability since those variables only serve as excuses for educators who don’t want to be held accountable because they only seek to maintain the status quo.

In the true spirit of innovation, accountability and transparency, schools enrolling opportunity scholarship students would share their lessons learned with public schools as part of the state leadership’s larger commitment to improving education throughout Nevada and all of her schoolchildren and youths. Oh, right. That wouldn’t happen because it’s about using our tax dollars to promote competition, not collaboration.

If for some unforeseen reason, the school of opportunity failed to show improved educational results, exhibited high teacher or administrative turnover, or had to close due to lack of funding or support (which would be irrelevant to performance since when it comes to schools, money doesn’t matter, right?), scholarship parents could simply trigger the school’s closure and move on to the next innovative idea.

Of course, we could always implement the proposed opportunity scholarships program without an accountability system in place. But how would we know if it was working? If the teachers were good or bad? If the students were improving? If the tax credits were worth giving? If the parents made the right choice?

Parents wouldn’t know; neither would the state. The Legislature shouldn’t fall for this type of empty “reform.” Much like the decision to avoid a bold, transformative agenda for a stronger, more equitable and excellent system of public schools in Nevada, that would be another missed opportunity.

Dr. Sonya Douglass Horsford is the senior resident scholar on education at The Lincy Institute at UNLV.

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  1. There is already no real "apples" to "apples" comparison of accountability for charter schools because "no excuses reformers" spent millions lobbying against it. Vouchers would surely meet the same fate with students paying the ultimate costs just as Dr. Horsford presumes. The for-profit education systems spend years demanding public school accountability only to turn around and refuse to be held accountable itself.

  2. Nevada's state of education is consistently at the bottom of the heap. You can't make meaningful progress by using minute changes at the margins. We need major reforms and revitalization of the status quo. Governor Sandival recognizes this fact and is moving in the right direction. Teachers and administrators need to think outside the box and demand real not marginal changes. Sadly, I opine they can't, won't, don't and all the above. Time for real change from the bottom up and top down. Turn the status quo inside out. What do we have to lose? Can't hurt. We're at the bottom, in the cellar, as low as you can go. Time is now. Let er rip.


  3. Class size has a limited and weak impact and is much much lower than teacher quality. Why is Horsford writing on this, she doesn't even know the basics, she's just politicking like her husband.

    Give me a break, you are against standardized testing but won't allow tuition tax credits without it? The logic is laughably bad.

  4. Dr. Horsford, we could randomly select students who win and use the scholarship and compare it to the control group... Ie the students who applied for a scholarship but didn't win one. No massive statewide standardized test needed.

    There, a solution for your objection. Now let us have the program so we can improve the quality of education for Nevadas neediest students.

  5. Lots of vocabulary, little insight. More money, more money, more money has not helped and will not help a broken public K-12. Fund school choice and allow options for students that PERFORM and for students with issues. Charter schools for learning disabled. "Private" schools for location, safety, concentration on subjects (majors/minors/college prep/vocational), different hours--night classes for student-parents, longer days, longer school years so students have better odds of learning.

  6. $12,000-$16,000 per year per student and we get lots of dropouts that can't speak or write the English language. Offer a charter school an ongoing contract--say minimum of 500 students for 5 years--and see what happens. Grades 5-12 or whatever level the school wants to start with.

  7. CSR needs CHANGE. We've been funding class size reduction in K-4, some 5-6. Let's let the schools and school districts determine class size--so they can allow somewhat larger elementary classes and somewhat smaller high school classes. We're creating some of our own problems. What does the student do when s/he is used to 15-22 students per class with individual attention and then lands in 35 students per class?