A select group of experts and administrators in the education field recently gathered at the Four Seasons Hotel in Las Vegas to discuss challenges and issues affecting the educational system in Nevada. The roundtable, moderated by University Chancellor Jane Nichols, was a part of Nevada Business Journal’s monthly Industry Outlook series. Those in attendance represented a broad cross-section of education, including both public and private schools, K-12 institutions, the university system and adult education. The group engaged in a frank discussion of important issues facing educators, students and parents in Nevada. It covered topics such as funding, administrative oversight, accountability and changes in student demographics.
Each attendee was asked to contribute a suggestion for improving conditions for Nevada students: “If you could change one thing in the education system, what would you do that would result in an immediate improvement for students?”
Mary Ella Holloway: We need to reach the national average of per-pupil expenditures for children and we need to pay teachers a salary that will attract and retain them. And it’s not just salaries we need. I’ve been teaching reading for 21 years in Clark County, and never once have I had a book for each child. I had 35 books and I had to share them with 150 children. It’s very difficult to hold me accountable when I don’t have the supplies I need.
Steve Soukup: The one thing I would change would be access to Nevada grants for private education opportunities.
Christine Chairsell: If I could wish for one thing it would be to allow UCCSN’s master plan for higher education to evolve and be funded so it can come into its own, with the distinct missions of each institution of higher education.
Ronald Remington: If there is one thing I would change it would be some way of finding a stable tax base so we could forge the kind of blueprint for education in Nevada that makes sense.
Stephen Bowers: There are lots of high voltage kids and a lot of high voltage educators in Nevada, but the amount of regulations shortcuts all that energy. Nevada regulates private education more strictly than any place I’ve ever seen. Some of my friends who teach in public schools tell me they spend most of their time dealing with regulations.
Richard Morgan: If I could change one thing it would be to increase cooperation and integration among the various units in the educational system throughout the state of Nevada.
Carlos Garcia: We need to bring Nevada up to the national average [of funding] and stop micromanaging education in all levels. I am tried of educators being portrayed as a bunch a people who can’t figure it out. We figured it out – we know exactly how to increase student achievement, but we don’t have the resources.
Kevin Dunning: For private schools there is an enormous amount of regulation with very little payback. And those regulations don’t enhance our ability to educate kids. They are the kinds of things that distract you from what you should really be about, the mission of your school.
Thalia Dondero: Teachers, professors and part-time professors need to have more money. That’s a must for this state, and I don’t know where they’re going to get their money unless they raise taxes. Everybody says we’re not going to raise taxes, but I don’t know how you can handle the number of students that you get without having a place for them to sit down.
Connie Gerber: It would be my fond desire to make a commitment to smaller-sized secondary schools. I believe we do injustice to children when we’re over 1,500 enrollment. I think so many things are mitigated by smaller sizes, including student engagement, teacher improvement, safety for our students and equity for children from various backgrounds.
Jane Nichols: I would like for [UCCSN] to be funded adequately. Unlike K-12, the state has a choice to fund the university system or not to fund it. When [legislators] get to the end of the session, they see how much money they have left and that’s what percent of our needs get met. That percentage has now fallen to only 81 percent of our costs, so it’s pretty difficult for us to be functioning. Another thing I would change right now is to ask for fully funded scholarships and financial assistance for all students who qualify as need-based, so they could go to school full-time and finish in four years, or in two years if they desire an associate degree.
Garcia: [Clark County] opened up 16 new schools this year. We are fortunate enough to have the bonds [to build new schools], but my biggest fear is that after we construct the buildings, we won’t be able to open them because we won’t have the funds. Our funding mechanism cannot support the system we have. We just cannot continue to cut. Last year we cut $74 million. This year we cut $8 million; next year we are slated to cut a minimum of $12 million. How can you do that when you’re growing by 12,000 to 15,000 students a year and are having to go out and recruit 2,000 teachers a year? People who don’t believe we have a true crisis now have their heads in the sand, because this is a crisis of enormous proportions.
James Hager: [Washoe County] just went through an $8 million budget reduction. We did not lose core programs at this point, but what we did lose were programs in the arts, elective programs and alternative education programs that helped reduce our dropout rate. If we have to go through a budget reduction next year, we’re going to start hitting class-size issues. I don’t know whether we are giving a full liberal arts education to our students because of these budget cuts.
Holloway: Nevada is $1400 below the national per-pupil average and Clark County is $1700 below. That impacts what happens in the classroom, including textbooks, and it also impacts custodians who clean the schools, as well as maintenance work that needs to be done. The school where I used to teach went several months without any heat because of maintenance problems.
Garcia: Last night we had a function in which the seven Edison [charter] schools came together, and we asked teachers what they saw as the major difference since Edison took over. The number one thing they mentioned was the additional $1.5 million that the district got from the Edison Foundation. That is approximately what it takes per school to bring us up to the national per-pupil average. Every one of them said, “We now have materials, we have supplies, and we have all the things we need to be able to work.” In every single group, our kids have improved tremendously because of these resources.
Morgan: We have all these people moving into Nevada from other states where they have seen other educational systems. Where is the parental pressure or concern about this issue? Do the parents just not care about the K-12 issue? If I had kids in school and heard the kind of things I am hearing this morning, I would be horrified. I would want my parent-teacher organization to get involved and try to do something.
Garcia: First of all, people come here because they don’t have to pay taxes. That’s why a lot of them come here. The second thing is that people come here from places where their school systems are worse than ours. In many places in America – especially urban centers – most school buildings are easily 100 years old. So when people come here they see these new buildings and they imagine this district must be loaded. When I moved here, the first thing I looked at was the budget. When I was in Fresno we had 80,000 students and my budget was $600 million. This district is three times that size, so I figured my budget should three times more, but it’s $1.2 billion.
Morgan: In this day and age, long-term thinking and strategic planning are very much prized. Maybe one thing the state of Nevada should be thinking about is a strategic plan for the state, some visionary thinking on the part of state leadership about where we want this state to be 20 years from now. We should have a strategic plan that establishes objectives and then figures out how to get there. One of the ways of getting there is to have an educated workforce and an intelligent, educated electorate to carry these kinds of things out. Maybe the value of education would be recognized by the Legislature as part of a long-term strategic planning process.
Gerber: Let’s be specific. What are the specifics of that long-range vision? What are the recommendation to address the many needs and wants here? We could lay it out in five- to 10-year increments and then hone that even more. I think so many of us share the same issues at our different locations, both private and public, but the topics are identical and the worries are identical.
Garcia: All 17 Nevada county superintendents have been working for four or five months to put together a plan that says what all17 counties agree on. Our goal is to come together for the next legislative session, because we do get picked apart. We need to come together and say, “This is the plan we are all going to support.” If each of us goes out alone, we end up losing.
Hager: We have to take a look at the structure itself. I don’t know that our teachers and administrators can do any more on the instructional side in 184 days. As part of a strategic plan, maybe we need a longer school year. We’ve been on this agrarian mentality that kids need to be out for the summertime to plant fields or harvest the crops. I am not sure we can do better within the kind of structure we’re forced into right now.
Chairsel: I do believe that education and economic diversity run hand in hand. We’ve come to a point where we’ve realized that the foundation is education. We have been asked to produce more teachers and more nurses for the workforce, but at the same time we are being asked, “Why should we fund you to do that when we don’t have anyone standing in line to be a teacher or a nurse?” It’s our business to increase the capacity for access to those degrees. I think it’s up to the business community, legislators and our public policymakers to provide an incentive for people to [pursue those careers] in the form of low-interest-rate loans or forgiveness of student loans. To place the responsibility of encouraging people to become teachers on education is ludicrous. The incentive has to be there from a more economical standpoint.
Garcia: As a country, we are not really serious about education. We give it lip service. We are the most industrialized, richest country on this planet, yet can we say as a country we support education? We are not even close. There are approximately 20 countries that per-income and per-capita spend more on education then we do. We ought to be ashamed of it. I believe we’re getting what we pay for. Education is the piñata of society and everyone wants to take a whack at it.
Dondero: I like the idea of having a strategic plan but you really need to gather the public. Groups such as PTAs are where you are going to get the pressure put on the Legislature to raise the funds.
Garcia: Parent involvement is going to happen as things get worse. This year, to give an example, we have no middle school athletics. We had to eliminate them. Next year, if we continue the same trend, I’ll tell you now we will eliminate all sports at the high school level and then all hell will break loose. Don’t get me wrong – I was a coach – it’s good to have those things for kids, but sooner or later, if you continue cutting you get to the libraries, the music, the arts. We are doing crisis management instead of having a vision and a plan to fund it. There has to be a long-range plan instead of the Band-Aid approach to resolving crises.
Dunning: I think strategic plans are excellent, but the fundamental problem appears to be dollars. Educators tend to attack problems intellectually. We need to get down and dirty and attack them like labor union leaders do. We need to really get after them.
Bowers: I am always so amused when politicians talk about accountability, and then their vision of accountability is standardized tests. We have wonderful teachers, and what are they teaching? They are teaching this stupid test. Is that going to help a child grow up to be a better lawyer or any other kind of professional?
Hager: If you talk to business owners these days they say we’re not providing them with good employees. If you ask them what is it we are not providing, I hear things like, “Students don’t know teamwork, they’re not problem solvers, they’re not conflict resolvers, they don’t have a good work ethic.” When do we have time to teach that, because we only have 180 days to get them ready for the Christmas exam, the Terra Novas and all the other exams, which are more recall than anything else? So it’s almost counterproductive to what they wanted in the first place.
Garcia: This is the seventh school district I’ve worked for, and it has by far the highest test scores of any district I’ve been in. We’re above the national average across the board. So what are people complaining about? And this is despite the fact that our demographics have changed radically and we now have 40 percent of our kids at the poverty level. Ten years ago, that didn’t exist here. Ten years ago, we had at most 10,000 to 12,000 students with limited proficiency in English. Right now we have 42,000, and in three years we estimate it will be 90,000, because it’s the fastest-growing segment of the population. This district went from 70 percent Anglo 10 years ago to where “minorities” are the majority. It’s only 48 percent Anglo now. When you look at that and see we have been able to sustain our test scores, it’s remarkable. If anybody had to predict this 10 or 15 years ago, they would have said our test scores would plummet because of the drastic change in our demographics, and yet the district has been able to sustain them.
Remington: I think it’s a natural tendency to assume that things aren’t going well in public schools and we hear a lot of outcry about students needing remedial classes. It’s important to remember that statistics include returning students who have been away from a classroom for more than 20 years. I think we have to be very understanding about the role of remedial education. These are attempts to bring people to a level where they can benefit from college work.
Bowers: Another assumption I think we really need to be careful about accepting blindly is that we are in the business of producing students who will be good employees. Obviously, that’s important, but I think there are other things that are equally important. Schools also teach our students how to become active in our democracy. We also need to be thinking about how to give our students a rich and deep spiritual life, to help then learn how to live lives that are rich in appreciation of things that are beautiful. If we get stuck on something like, “They can’t make change [at the cash register],” then if they can make change, we think we are successful. We are losing sight of what our mission ought to be.
Facing the Future
Nichols: I think the Millennium Scholarship program is going to change the nature of this state. It has the potential to give students the hope they can go to college. It is certainly changing the face of higher education, with enrollment this year at both universities at 9 percent over normal growth. We didn’t anticipate that our growth rate could be that high, so it’s pretty phenomenal.
Soukup: Let’s look at a positive if we can. As we look at higher education, are we getting ideally prepared people? No. Have we ever gotten ideally prepared people? No. Are our students different from those in any other state’s higher education system? No. Ten years ago, law school was not available in the state of Nevada. Now it’s fully operational and it’s going to provide some wonderful benefits to the state. The Community College system and the Nevada State College in Henderson are helping improve our workforce. Will we have higher accessibility for the residents of the state of Nevada as we move forward? Yes. That will take a larger number of people coming out of secondary schools and becoming involved in higher education. Is there a better chance that we are then going to have some not as well prepared as they could be? I think it goes without saying. Do we all have a part to play to give those people the opportunity for success? Yes. Give us another five years and I think we will no longer be at the bottom in the numbers of college graduates in the state of Nevada and that’s a positive thing.