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Paint it bleak: a few cautionary words from our fiery education columnist

“I could not foresee this thing happening.” –Mick Jagger

Think of the dead prostitute in the politician’s bed in The Godfather. That is the state of public education in Nevada today — bloody and messy.

It all started in 1999, when somebody saw that the casino industry could save billions in taxes off the backs of teachers and students. That’s when casinos turned their brutal lobbyists, the modern-day versions of The Godfather’s hitman Luca Brasi, loose on our state Legislature. The message to politicians was clear and simple: Hold the line on casino taxes, or else. Even to the point of creating one of the lowest-funded education systems in the country.

From 1999 to today, casino moguls have been strip-mining tons of money from our public schools to invest outside Nevada — in Ohio, China, Singapore and elsewhere. And for what? Well, to compete against our own casino revenues here. Almost comically, the titans of Nevada’s gaming empire weep crocodile tears at the thought of raising the state’s 6.75 percent gaming tax rate, reportedly the world’s lowest, while happily and generously paying about 39 percent in taxes in China. Consequently, from 2000 through 2002, area teachers received zero percent in cost-of-living increases, when police and firefighters were getting 10-13 percent. Furthermore, teachers have gotten zero percent in cost-of-living hikes in seven of the last 13 years, gaining a mere 16 percent in such raises when the nation’s cost of living jumped 45 percent.

Then, in 2002, America’s corporate-based education reform movement started doing nationwide, through the No Child Left Behind smokescreen, what had been done to teachers and students here, by cutting and diverting public funds. In the past decade, billions of taxpayer dollars have been surreptitiously moved from the transparent public sector (our kids) into the nontransparent private sector (businesses). Evidently the godfathers of national public policy found a way to inspire this questionable practice through corporate “donations,” which, like dead prostitutes in beds, have pulled the puppet strings on politicians’ sawdust arms regarding education.

Back in Nevada, in 2008, casinos brokered a backroom deal with the teachers’ arguably corrupt union to raise room taxes on tourists to the tune of $100 million per year for teachers. Promised money. But teachers have never seen a dime of that money in cost-of-living increases. It simply has vanished seemingly into thin air. And teachers have been left, as Socrates observed several millennia ago, “to go poor and nude.” This translates to local per-pupil-funding ranking near the bottom in the country, roughly 25 percent below the national average.

Yet what is the bottom line to all this for kids?

The surprising answer is that it hasn’t made much of a difference, one way or the other, to our children, as far as I can tell. Las Vegas has good schools, filled with excellent teachers. Given the construction boom of the past 15 years, Clark County probably has more new schools than any district in America. Plus, because this is Vegas, we consistently have attracted great teachers from around the globe. So what’s the problem?

Well, the problem isn’t the education system. Rather it’s the town itself.

We live in the most profound gambling culture in the history of mankind. And perhaps one of the cruelest. Monte Carlo, in the Principality of Monaco, by contrast, has a law that if you live there you cannot gamble there. In other words, it does not cannibalize its own citizens. Vegas, on the other hand, can suck the heart and soul out of anything that moves. Human life here has about as little value as in a war zone.

But our kids, being the innocents they are, keep trying their best to survive the insanity of it all. Like turtle hatchlings, they must race desperately toward the waters of adulthood, trying not to get crushed in the mouth of a beast that devours its own young. If they’re lucky enough to make it, as adults they simply become more fodder to keep this monster that never sleeps alive. In a town of addictions, then, their future is bleak.

Still, many people might counter this observation with a question: Then why are our schools’ passing and graduation rates so abysmal, if education isn’t the problem?

Well, first of all, such rates have been based on nebulous national standards. For example, it has recently been reported that the reform movement has triggered widespread cheating scandals in states and districts desperate to cook their academic books (Texas, Florida, New York, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.). Thus, when discussing graduation and testing outcomes on a national rubric, sadly, all bets are off. Nobody knows anything for sure. That’s the distasteful legacy of corporate-based education reforms.

And here at home, Vegas ranks near the bottom in so many critical categories, almost across the board, that education is simply a small piece of a very bitter pie. For example, in one instance, the city has been designated as the “dumbest” in America. Not to mention similarly grim reports about health care, social services and taxation structures.

Russian writer Leo Tolstoy said, “Many men want to change the world, but few men want to change themselves.” Perhaps the same can be said of a town. Many people want to keep “reforming” public education here, to divert attention from the real truth of the matter. But few people want to hold our city up to an honest mirror of assessment, to see the ugly truth of what is really happening to our kids.

Bottom line: We need to attract and retain a better class of casino owners and businessmen. And, figuratively speaking, we need to bury those dead prostitutes once and for all, so politicians can sleep a little better at night and begin dealing with the real problems facing our children. But what are the odds of that happening?