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Two of education reform’s biggest boosters have left Nevada, but that doesn’t mean the movement is slowing down

<p>Angry teacher pointing out</p>

Angry teacher pointing out

A GOOD EDITOR, YEARS AGO, told me to jettison the word “reform.” Calling a policy change “reform” is a way to dress it up and make it acceptable to the public, she explained.

If you want to award less money to people who sue after being horribly maimed by bad products or services, don’t call it “giving victims less money.” Call it “tort reform.”

Likewise, if you want to take apart the teachers unions and make it easier to fire teachers, don’t say “make it easier to fire teachers”. Call it “education reform.”

And they have. For a decade, education reform — that is, administrative and policy changes to public schools — has been a train barreling down the tracks, embraced by elected and appointed officials at all levels, across the political spectrum. Everybody loves reform!

That’s as true in Nevada as anywhere in the nation; schools in Nevada and the Clark County School District, the nation’s fifth largest, consistently rank among the worst-performing in the nation. While some wags also point out that they are also among the worst funded in the nation, political leaders, unable or unwilling to address the funding issue, have instead called for “reform.”

Two of the brightest lights of the school reform movement in Nevada were James Guthrie, the state superintendent appointed by Gov. Brian Sandoval a little more than a year ago, and Dwight Jones, hired away from his reform efforts in Denver by the Clark County School Board in 2010 to head our huge district.

Both men were vocal advocates for education reform. Guthrie, particularly, wanted to tie pay increases to “merit” awards for teachers, and he made waves by suggesting that class size didn’t impact educational achievement among the students. Guthrie lasted one year in his new job, leaving this spring.

Jones was two years into his four-year contract when he abruptly left, also in the spring.

Has reform been derailed?

Some would hope so. Angie Sullivan, a teacher in the district, says she and her colleagues are tired of shifting curriculum, teaching towards tests and standards and goals that aren’t only arbitrary — in some cases, the teachers don’t know what those goals are or have the materials to teach the students.

And what she describes as educational chaos is happening against a background in which national and state leaders are encouraging the dismantling of traditional educational models, going to nonunion charter schools and vouchers for private or religious schools.

“If I thought the reforms were going to improve schools or help kids, I would be all for it,” Sullivan says. “But what I see is the opposite. I see [ethnic] resegregation, white flight into charter schools.”

She says charter schools don’t appear to play by the same rules as those applied to traditional public schools, and cites testing scandals, including one in which an Indiana “reformer,” state schools chief Tony Bennett, allegedly rigged state standards to boost the results of a friend’s charter school. Bennett was forced to resign from his latest gig, as the reform-minded state school leader in Florida.

There have also been reports of charter-school test improprieties from Louisiana, the District of Columbia, Georgia and California.

Sullivan teaches kindergarten. She says she’s amazed that people want to establish strict accountability and testing for her 5-year-olds.

But Sullivan and those who think the zeal for reform is misplaced may not take any real comfort from the replacement of the two most prominent reformers in the state. The new bosses may be more politically astute and carry less baggage than the old bosses, but they were hired to keep the changes to public schools coming.

Carolyn Edwards, president of the school board, says the new district superintendent, Pat Skorkowsky, will continue the push for reforms, particularly to make it easier to fire non-performing teachers and to focus on the national “Common Core” standards now adopted by 45 states, including Nevada.

“Absolutely. The direction of the board when we hired Pat was to continue the reforms that Dwight Jones started,” Edwards says. Teachers, she says, “have to be effective. They have to be delivering.”

Edwards says the same reasoning applies to Sandoval’s choice to replace Guthrie. Sandoval’s hire is Dale Erquiaga, who is no stranger to either state politics — he is a former senior advisor to the very same governor — or Nevada education: He was the school district’s government affairs director in 2009-2010, and helped lead Sandoval’s school-reform push in the Legislature.

“The fact that he appointed Dale Erquiaga means that he expects the reforms to move forward,” Edwards says.

Erquiaga and Skorkowsky, whose staffs were not able to arrange interviews for this story, both inherit huge fundamental headaches, with underperforming schools and students, but they at least have relatively clean slates as far as the state and county teachers unions. Indeed, Ruben Murillo, who just vaulted from leadership of the Clark County Education Association to the Nevada State Education Association, has been publicly supportive of Skorkowsky.

Nonetheless, Murillo and the unions are leery of the “reform” train.

“The reform agenda is still in effect,” Murillo says. “We’re not opposed to reform. We want school reform with a fair balance. We want reform that makes sense, that’s not only fair to the teacher but to the student. We want reform that really makes a difference.”

Who doesn’t? But Murillo says he opposes policy changes that put all the onus on teachers for classroom success or failure. Those don’t make any more sense than rules that would punish only administrators, support staff, parents or students, he says.

Murillo, of course, wants to protect existing teachers, provide them with good benefits and wages and give them a voice in designing school policies. That puts him squarely at odds with those who say schools should be run like businesses.

“Education is not a business,” he says. “It cannot be run like a business. Businesses throw away a commodity after its expiration date. Students are not throwaways to be marked down.”

Murillo says all the talk of reform misses the biggest, most necessary reform: “First and foremost, we need to address the inadequate funding.”

The state and local unions are working to pass a 2-percent tax on large business profits, an initiative that they argue will generate $800 million annually for public schools.

“That is a huge organizing challenge for us, The Education Initiative,” Murillo says. “There are all these proposed changes, testing, but the problems all have the roots in inadequate funding. Then they blame teachers. … We’re in an education drought when it comes to funding. If you throw a little bit of water on the desert, it will get wet, but unless you add water every day, you’re not going to have anything grow.”

The National Center for Education Statistics puts Nevada’s per-pupil spending at about $8,400 a year, 44th in the nation. The Clark County School District pegs per-pupil overall spending even lower, at about $7,800 for the state’s largest district. The national average is almost $10,700,

Murillo says the extra funding is not about paying existing teachers more, it is about more teachers and smaller class sizes. The reform he wants to see is more individualized attention, and that means fewer kids in more classrooms. The average middle and high school class in Nevada now has 38 students, compared to a national average (from 2008, according to the NCES) of 23 students.

But with or with additional funding, the administrative and policy changes for Clark County and the state will be coming. Call it “reform” if you like those changes.