Just over a year ago Dr. James Guthrie became Nevada’s first superintendent of instruction to be appointed by Governor Sandoval. Guthrie has the most impressive array of lifetime academic and professional achievements of anyone who ever graced the Silver State’s educational hierarchy.
Early on in his Nevada career he was fond of telling audiences that he was 75 years old and didn’t have time to be politically correct. In response to Nevada’s bottom-of-the-barrel national education rankings he preached a gospel of focusing on teacher quality. His mantra: “Exposing students to a really good teacher can do more for achievement than the next ten things combined.”
When the Nevada Legislature convened in February of this year it became evident that his prickly manner might not endear him to liberals.
Testifying on a class size reduction funding proposal before a joint meeting of the Nevada Assembly Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee Guthrie said: “In an ideal world I would ask that you lift (legislatively mandated) class size restrictions and let local school districts decide how best to spend their resources.”
The relationship of class size reduction and student achievement is murky at best but it is the mothers’ milk of politics to the teacher union because it forces new teacher hires which means both power and money for the union.
Democrats in the legislature rely on state and county teacher unions for campaign contributions as well as shoe leather at election times. So Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick (D Las Vegas) and Senator Debbie Smith (D — Reno) were quick to shrink in horror at Guthrie’s suggestion. Shortly afterwards he tendered his resignation to the governor.
Here’s where “Nevada’s gain” comes in. Barely a month after his resignation Guthrie wrote a study, published by Nevada Policy Research Institute, blaming the “downward spiral” in Nevada’s K-12 education on the fact that: “All Nevada teachers receive the same base pay as others in their district, regardless of performance, receiving automatic raises for seniority … but nothing for performance, offering little incentive to excel.”
Guthrie then revealed his proposal to pay Nevada’s top teachers $200,000 per year. The system would identify “value-added” by a teacher’s performance measuring academic progress of his/her students adjusted for differences in students’ backgrounds and prior performance.
The top 10 percent of “value-added” teachers would be eligible to apply to become master teachers, earn $200,000 per year, work on 44 week per year contracts, hold their master teacher status one or two years at a time and be eligible to renew based on continuing superior student achievement.
The proposal was electric, receiving media attention throughout Nevada. The responses were predictable. Guthrie’s push for bold education reform is strongly opposed by the Nevada Teacher Union according to its executive director Gary Peck. “If raises aren’t across the board it doesn’t work,” Peck said.
But Elaine Wynn, President of the State Board of Education and former wife of Casino Mogul Steve Wynn, disagreed. “In the common workplace raises are not automatically given to everyone but are selectively given to those for good work, as they should be,” she said.
Guthrie’s response to the response was: “If you’re not going to make it dramatic don’t bother. It won’t capture attention. School matters and right now schools are broken. The time has come for Nevada to think big.” he concluded.
Will Dr. Guthrie be able to do more for Nevada as its ex-superintendent than as superintendent? Time will tell, but he’s off to a smashing start.
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.