INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — Progress seems to come in fits and starts, particularly in the field of education reform. In 2011 Republican Governor Brian Sandoval persuaded a legislature dominated by Democrats to enact key education reform measures.
These included an alternative teacher certification program, a statewide charter school authority, a meaningful evaluation system for teachers, a teacher merit pay program and authority for the governor to appoint Nevada’s superintendent of education. That was a stunning “start.”
A “fit” came March 29 when Sandoval’s hand-picked state school boss, Dr. Jim Guthrie, suddenly resigned without explanation. Speculation over the reason for his departure has been rampant.
In office barely one year, the 76-year-old Guthrie was direct and blunt even to the point of political incorrectness. He favorably compared Washoe County schools with troubled Clark County schools; shortly thereafter the Clark County School Superintendent abruptly resigned.
In testimony before the legislature he urged lawmakers not to earmark funds for class size reduction but to let individual school districts spend the funds where they would do the most good. This brought devastating criticism from Democrats for whom class size reduction is an article of faith.
So was Guthrie’s departure prompted by firefights with Democratic legislators or did his abrupt style clash with the “friendly persuasion” that Gov. Sandoval uses so effectively? No one is saying. However in an editorial the Reno Gazette Journal expressed its fear that further education reform may be doomed. Not to worry.
The 2011 legislative reforms cited above are a great start. Still to come is a program of educational tax credits where businesses can receive a dollar for dollar tax credit for donations made to a scholarship fund which will allow minority students and those in high poverty areas to attend private and parochial schools.
Also in the wings is a plan similar to Louisiana’s which would provide for the conversion of schools not meeting Nevada’s educational needs into parent and teacher run charter schools. Washoe County’s grading of public schools by their record of academic success from one to five stars is a first step in objectively identifying schools which are failing their constituencies.
Education reforms can also be home grown. Washoe County’s system of grading schools made it possible for Reno Gazette Journal Education Editor Siobhan McAndrew to identify 13 underperforming area schools and launch a series of investigative reports on them.
She found that each of these one and two star schools was located in a high poverty area and had a large percentage of English language learners. But she also found Kate Smith School which has 85 percent of its students living in poverty and half struggling to learn English yet its academic performance is among the top ten among Washoe County schools.
How did this happen? A 2000 study of high performing poverty schools by the Heritage Foundation, supplemented by a 2006 study by Learning Point showed that with high expectations and a lot of hard work disadvantaged kids can learn and perform as well as anyone. That’s the approach Kate Smith Principal Richard Swanberg takes and it works.
As the school district maneuvers to install the same approach in the 13 underperforming schools a stop gap measure is to matriculate students from 6 of them into Vaughn Middle School where despite having 25 percent English language learners and 80 percent living in poverty Principal Ginny Knowles and her staff have earned a four star rating for academic achievement.
“They only have those students for 7th and 8th grade, yet they are able to catch students up,” according to Washoe Superintendent Pedro Martinez.
Moving forward let’s hope for more “starts” and less “fits.”
Jim Clark is president of Republican Advocates and has served on the Washoe County & Nevada State GOP Central Committees; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.