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Legislators, educators disagree on cause of empowerment schools’ success


By Phillip Moyer, Nevada News Bureau: While support grows for extending the empowerment school program in Nevada, disagreements remain as to what causes the program to be successful, and whether the program would work without the $600 in additional funding per student that empowerment schools have been given in the past.

Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, says the extra funding tied to the empowerment program will not likely be approved, since the budget cuts did away with the previous attempt to expand the program in 2007. Without the extra funding, Smith doubts that empowerment schools will be effective.

“I just don’t think you’re going to see the same outcomes, and I don’t know how much traction it will get if there’s no extra funding,” she said. “It really is about the ability to give performance bonuses or have Saturday schools — you know, the things that the regular funding does not provide for. That’s what really makes the difference in the empowerment idea.”

Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, disagreed. She pointed to Whitman Elementary School, which she says improved significantly after being allowed to function autonomously without extra funding. Cegavske believes that a similar system would benefit other Nevada schools.

“If you don’t have the money, then this is the time to go in and try. But you have to give them the autonomy,” she said.

Cegavske criticized past empowerment program legislation for not providing “free autonomy” to the schools involved, saying the legislation came with strings attached that prevented the program from being used to its full potential.

“If you want true reform, you’ve got to get rid of all of the shackles, so to speak — all of the ties to somebody else controlling it. If you truly want those schools to be successful, let the principal and the staff do it.”

Assemblyman Harvey Munford, D-Las Vegas, said the autonomy provided by empowerment schools, combined with the extra funding, allows teachers to figure out ways to improve education.

“[Teachers] can try all kinds of things with the money. They can put together new programs, and see if they can, in some way, improve the performance of the kids in the classroom,” he said. “If we could afford it funding-wise, I think that, especially in the high-risk areas, we should try to make all [schools] empowerment schools.”

However, Munford, who worked as a teacher in Clark County for 36 years, believes that simply providing schools with more autonomy would be beneficial, allowing teachers to find ways to get students more excited about learning.

“I remember as a teacher I used to hate being always given all these directives: that I had to follow this, that I had to follow that,” he said. “I had some things I could present that I felt were valuable.”

Munford said if he had been given the option, he had ideas for things that could energize and engage his students as well as improve performance.

“And that’s what it’s all about, making the kids want to be in that classroom every day,” he said. “You’ve got to get them excited to want to learn.”

Assemblyman Ed Goedhart, R-Amargosa Valley, thinks the success of the empowerment program stems more from the autonomy school faculty than from the additional funding.

“I don’t look at [the success] as being a funding issue, a dollar-for-dollar correlation,” he said. “I look at it as– because the principals were able to get their vice-principals and their team members on board and work as a team with a minimum of interference. And that’s what need back in education.”

Goedhart also said that if parents and students are given a choice of which schools to attend, parents may work to help their children learn, so as to validate the choice they make.

“[Choosing the school] gets parents involved in their kids’ education. That’s what we actually need,” he said. “No amount of money is going to make a great student on his or herself alone without having some parental involvement and encouragement.”

Clark County School District officials say funding is important for all public schools, but not the overriding factor in whether to support and expand empowerment schools.

Jeff Geihs, a former principal of Cheyenne High School who is now on special assignment overseeing the use of private donations by the district’s 17 current empowerment schools, said he is a big advocate of the empowerment concept.

“What I want to make very clear to you – empowerment has nothing to do with extra money,” he said. “Nothing at all to do with extra money.”

That is not to say Nevada’s public schools are well funded or couldn’t use more financial support, Geihs said. But the two issues are separate.

In Clark County, private organizations have stepped up with additional and substantial funding for empowerment schools because they believe in the concept, he said. Schools receive the funding and the principal, teachers and parents make decisions about how to best spend the money to improvement student achievement.

By giving the schools the majority of funding, a district administration has to be responsive and provide what the schools want to improve achievement or they can spend their dollars elsewhere, Geihs said.

Geihs said he would support the empowerment concept whether there was clear evidence of improved student achievement or not because it is based on Democracy and a free market economy. The schools get to decide how to spend their resources, not the administration, he said.

One major private contributor to the Clark County School District’s empowerment schools is the Lincy Foundation, a charitable foundation run by billionaire Kirk Kerkorian.

Jeremy Hauser, who oversees the district’s empowerment schools, said 13 more schools will be added next year even though additional funding will not be available to most of them. Two of the 13 are part of the state’s efforts to improve schools and so some funding will be included, he said.

The current 17 schools have one more year of additional funding available to them, Hauser said.

Expanding the empowerment program is seen as a way to let school officials, teachers and parents make decisions on what is best for the students whether additional money is available or not, he said. Empowerment schools are essentially charter schools for the public school system, Hauser said.

An independent evaluation on the first four empowerment schools have shown them to outperform the district average on most state required criterion-reference testing measures, he said. They also outperform as far as parent and staff satisfaction.

Sean Whaley also contributed to this story.

Audio files:

Jeff Geihs of Clark County School District on funding not related to empowerment:

060810Geihs1 :14 with extra money.”

Empowerment embodies free market economy:

060810Geihs2 :32 free market economy.”

Talking about an empowerment system:

060810Geihs3 :16 free market economy.”

Money better spent at school level:

060810 :15 off you are.”

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