By Phillip Moyer, Nevada News Bureau: Despite a broken public education system and gloomy outlook for the state’s K-12 students, effective reform might very well be on the horizon for Nevada.
The reform that is gaining the most traction in the state is that of publicly funded empowerment schools that are able to make decisions on schedules, staffing, budgeting and instruction separately from a centralized school district. The system also provides students with a choice as to which public schools they attend, and schools are funded based on how many students they attract.
There are already 17 empowerment schools in Clark County, and there is slated to be nearly 30 such schools at the beginning of the next school year. The empowerment school program has been praised by the Obama Administration for its positive effect on test scores in an executive summary of proposed education reform released in April.
Brent Husson, chair of the nonprofit Business and Education Alliance for the Children of Nevada, has begun a quiet campaign of speaking to state legislators about reforming Nevada education through the empowerment school model.
Husson said businesses need citizens to be better educated in order to qualify for jobs, and that the current system is failing with only about 50 percent of Nevada students graduating from high school and 43 percent of Nevada’s 4th graders unable to read at a basic level.
“In the business community, if we want qualified and competent employees, it’s always in our best interest to have great schools,” he said. “And we have kids, so we want our kids to have great schools.”
The Nevada Policy Research Institute has compiled a list of studies that show current public education causes the graduation rates of low-income students and minorities such as Hispanics and African-Americans to be significantly lower than those of higher-income students, Asians and whites.
Maureen Peckman, executive director of the Council for a Better Nevada, says that with the number of students in schools doubling since the 1940s, the diversity of students’ ethnic and social backgrounds expanding drastically, and the job market changing so people are competing for jobs with others halfway across the world, education needs to change in order to fit the situation.
“The world today is a lot different than it was 60 years ago, and yet the schools we go to to become educated to compete in this world are educating us as though the world is the same as it was 60 years ago,” she said. “And so, we need to reshape schools.”
Peckman emphasized that, with the economic situation as it is, Nevada needs to analyze whether it is “getting a return on investment” from the money it puts into education. Peckman argues that the state isn’t getting much of a return.
“Now, are we under-funding education? Absolutely,” she said. “I do agree that education is under-funded today. But until we […] get a return on investment for the existing resources that we do put into education, I would argue that we shouldn’t be giving one more dollar to that system until we prove we use the existing resources efficiently.”
Empowerment schools, Peckman says, have shown that they are a more effective way to teach students.
“In the four years we’ve had these environments in place, in these 17 schools, we’re kicking the pants out of the district average in these other centralized environments, where there’s very little latitude in budget, in curriculum choices, in staffing latitude,” she said.
The Nevada State Education Association has come out in favor of the empowerment school program. NSEA President Lynn Warne said she hopes to see the program spread to all counties in Nevada, saying that the program’s site-based decision making has allowed the schools to adjust themselves in ways that benefit the students they’re teaching.
Warne says that she hasn’t heard of much opposition the program yet, but she believes opposition may come from the higher cost of full implementation.
Currently, empowerment schools receive an additional $600 per student enrolled than traditionally-run schools. Warne did say, however, that some parts of the program could be implemented without the additional cost, if there were certain flexibilities of the program such as adjusting the length of the school year or the operation of certain after-school programs.
“We would still be pushing to see that financial support provided to empowerment schools so they can have that kind of flexibility – staffing flexibility, school day school year flexibility,” she said, “but […] there are other aspects to it that don’t necessarily come with a price tag.”
The legislature passed a bill in 2007 that would have expanded the number of empowerment schools across the state, but cuts to funding soon afterward eliminated the funding.