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October 21, 2014

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Nevada 3.0 - The state of education:

Schools chief: Spend money wisely

A Q&A with state Superintendent James Guthrie

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 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.

Dr. Sonya Douglass Horsford, the senior resident scholar on education at The Lincy Institute at UNLV, writes about a missed opportunity in Nevada.

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.

This month, Nevada Superintendent of Public Instruction James Guthrie sat down in Carson City for a discussion with Matt Hufman, the editor of the Sun’s editorial and opinion pages. This is an edited and condensed transcript of the conversation:

Talk about school funding.

Would I like more money for schools? Of course I’d like more money for schools. Is it going to happen? No. No, it’s not going to happen.

So, my challenge is to sell the state on the fact that what money we have, we’ve got to spend it wisely. That’s not easy. There are a lot of built-in interests.

Education reformer Frederick Hess said if schools, like in the Clark County School District, would make various changes, including reforms and efficiencies, there would be enough money. Do you think he’s right?

I do. I can point statewide, let alone Clark County, which of course is the state, I can find $100 million tomorrow. That is, technically, I can find. Politically, I don’t know.

In the state we spend about $50 million annually on substitutes for teachers and mostly for teachers and for classified employees, and I can’t find any school district that has any absenteeism incentives in it at all. It’s just assumed that you’re going to have to spend $50 million. Well, I don’t think you have to.

There are plenty of school districts outside of the state that have arranged to incentivize teachers not to be ill or not to take absences. Now, if you’re sick, you’re sick. That’s a wholly different thing. They share the savings with teachers.

This year we’re giving $40 million to school districts for teacher salary increases based on experience and academic credits, which are known to be irrelevant to propelling student achievement.

But they’re contracted at the local level. So I’m not on a high horse pontificating about this. But there are a lot of places in this state where we could save money.

Are there other things?

Well, we’re handing out money for textbooks. Why? It’s so much cheaper to buy the youngster an iPad and load them on electronically. It’s a whole lot cheaper to go electronic than it is to buy these books.

Our teachers are (ranked) 18th in the nation in terms of mean salary. And that’s in a state that doesn’t have an income tax. So, if you factor that in, it really moves us up to about 13th.

I’m happy about that. I’m glad we pay our teachers well. I just don’t think we pay our best teachers well enough. And we pay some teachers too much. And I’d like to change that in time. But the fundamental instrument in place for doing that is the evaluation system we’re pioneering the next two years. That’s just crucial.

Of the state’s 22,000 teachers, I don’t know how many of them are great — I’m going to say 10 percent. And how many are terrible? I don’t know. I know that in the last two years, Clark County has moved to dismiss 36 teachers, 18 a year.

That’s about .001 percent of their teachers were somehow judged to be ineffective for whatever reason. Is that really all the ineffective teachers there are? Suspicious. That’s not the bottom line here. But again, I’m not beating up Clark County until we get the evaluation system into place. They don’t have a basis for dismissal.

After you were hired, you said to the Reno Gazette-Journal that one of the reasons you thought you were hired is you were very direct and you said you were going to do “X, Y and Z.” What’s X, Y and Z?

I said that I came with a sense of urgency. I was 76. I didn’t have 10 years to wait. I mean, it’s got to happen. We just have to get going with this thing. Every 11 minutes of every school day, a youngster drops out of school in this state, and that propels me. I don’t want that to happen. Urgency is one thing I said I thought we ought to bring to the table.

I’m here to drive rigorous curriculum, I’m here to drop a new testing program into place, I’m here to get teachers evaluated and I’m here to get this department managed well.

The Reno Gazette-Journal recently quoted you talking about the difference between the Clark and Washoe school districts. (The quote was that Washoe looks like “a dream” compared with Clark County.) Give me your thoughts on that.

Well, the (governor’s) chief of staff called me the next morning and said, “I don’t think you meant what’s coming out.” Then it was widely reported to me that Dwight Jones was so mad at me he couldn’t even say my name. And the chief of staff asked that I kiss and make up with Dwight, which was easy to do because he’s a very generous man.

All I meant to say was you’ve got one district where 72 percent of the students are going to dominate all of the statistics. It’s the tail that’s going to wag this whole dog. If it doesn’t succeed, the whole state’s going to look bad, but I didn’t say it very adroitly.

I think the quote was Washoe is a “dream” compared with Clark.

That is the quote.

Is that true?

Yes, it is. And it’s a dream because of a scale that’s manageable. It’s got 72,000 students, not 330,000. So that’s what I meant. Also, because it’s so much smaller, and Reno’s so much smaller than Las Vegas, it’s got a cohesion, a coherence; it’s got a sense of community to it that’s very difficult to build in Las Vegas, which is all these disparate communities and segments.

I’ve never seen such disparity in wealth as I see every day. I live in Las Vegas at the governor’s request. I walk through these casinos and then I go to schools and see children, it’s just stunning disparity here, which you really don’t see to that extreme in Reno.

What do you do about the social issues? Clark County is a little different ball of wax with the English-language learner population, poverty levels, etc.?

No small challenge and there’s no pooh-poohing it, either. What we know from schools like Kipp Academy or even some of their own signature high schools down there, some of those career technical high schools, it doesn’t matter. They can succeed with these students.

Now (the success is) pocket to pocket to pocket, it’s not yet systemic. What we know is under the right circumstances, these children can learn, both poor and non-English speaking.

This is not the first time in the history of the United States where we have had large numbers of non-English speaking children. They used to come from southern Europe and eastern Europe and oh my God, the WASPs thought the world was coming to an end, but we as a nation taught them and they fall into place. We can do it again.

What are your thoughts about the funding formula the state uses to fund education?

I’m on record before I ever got here that we had an outmoded funding formula. But it’s not that it’s broke; it isn’t, we make it work. It’s just that it’s got features that ought to be changed. It’s got this so-called count day and so on; we all ought to be going to average daily attendance.

It doesn’t have an appropriate weighting for cost-of-living differences throughout the state. It’s a bad measure. It doesn’t weigh pupils for poverty or language proficiency.

So it’s got a lot of moving parts that need to be changed, but you can’t change it right away for two reasons: First, the analyses about what the new formula ought to look like just can’t be done in a month. It’s more complicated than that. There were no provisions made to do it before this legislative session. Secondly, the economy’s got to improve more or we’re going to be taking dramatic amounts of money from small districts and giving them to Clark, where they won’t be dramatic at all. It will have a major redistribution effect, and so we need to undertake that when there’s a rising tide of revenues.

Regarding redistribution: The smaller districts get a significant subsidy compared with Clark County. Do you keep doing that?

Well, for a while you keep doing that. Esmeralda is 65 students, eight of whom live in California. So you redo the formula and you take $200,000 away from Esmeralda. That’s going to hurt. Clark’s not going to know it got $200,000 more. Won’t know it.

So there has to be a transition period, a hold harmless period of about two to three years, and to do that, we’re going to have to have a rising revenue tide. And here’s another point where I absolutely concur with the governor: This economy in this state is too fragile to raise taxes right now. That would hurt.

If 72 percent of schools are in Clark County, shouldn’t more money go there to fix the problems?

Eventually, it’s likely that more money will go down there. The question is when. It’s an issue of timing. Eventually, it might well happen. But, keeping with earlier comments, it’s incumbent on them to spend the money they’ve got wisely, too.

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  1. In order to spend money wisely, school authorities have to a much better job effectively measuring and managing resources and their results. More money is the simple solution. Better spending money is just a variation of more money. Education matrices and measures are the real need. Unless and until uniform standards are maximized across the State for educational institutions nothing will change except the dialogue.

    CarmineD

  2. Guthrie states, "...the analyses about what the new formula (for school funding) ought to look like just can't be done in a month. It's more complicated than that. There were no provisions made to do it before this legislative session."

    Why were there no provisions or a proposal submitted to the legislature before the 2013 session convened? Guthrie has been on the job for 11 months. One would think that would be enough time to prepare a proposal. Instead, he's busy working on a new evaluation system that Dwight Jones, in charge of "the tail that's going to wag this whole dog," has conned Clark County school board trustees into authorizing $300,000 a year for a consultant to develop an evaluation system of its own.

    Mr. Guthrie might well be right about one thing. The real problem is that education dollars need to be spent more wisely, especially in Clark County, where it wouldn't surprise me at all to discover that we have an associate superintendent in charge of pencil distribution hiding in an office somewhere.