Las Vegas Sun

July 24, 2016

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Scott Dickensheets:

In search of common ground on education spending

The comments under this paper’s story last week about the governor calling for teachers to accept a pay cut — while sometimes grammatically and syntactically challenging — were gratifying in their way. Fewer people than I expected barked the usual noise about pampered teachers needing to take a hit like everyone else.

Sure, several of the positive commenters were no doubt teachers, some were merely agitators, and a few were, I hope, the product of a school system other than ours. But there also seemed to be a dawning recognition that cutting into an already distressed system isn’t, in fact, the best way to make it work better.

Small reassurance, I know. But for those of us concerned about shoring up education, tiny handholds of optimism are all we have to cling to right now.

These are odd and frustrating times in education. The call to do more with less — not, in itself, a bad sentiment — becomes, in successive years, an ongoing mandate to do even more with even less. When I hear that Dwight Jones, the new superintendent of the Clark County School District, wants to commission a privately funded study of the district’s $2 billion budget to analyze “our return on investment,” I can both applaud his due diligence and rue the application of a business-model mind-set (“return on investment”) to an institution that we all should consider more of a public trust.

So, to be clear, I’m progressive on education. I think we need to pump money in, not suck it out, and if we have to, for example, rob the mining industry to do so, oh well.

Nonetheless, although I am (full disclosure) married to an educator, and (additional disclosure) know some educators, and (I’m on a roll here!) have been somewhat educated, I’ve never been an actual, sneakers-on-the-ground educator. There are limits to my practical knowledge. Which means, if I’m being fair-minded, there are times when I should yield the floor to someone who’s been there.

Enter “L.” That’s how I’m identifying a local teacher who recently left the profession after 26 years. She doesn’t want to publicly jump into the fray, but after one of my recent columns — I was berating Gov. Brian Sandoval for underfunding schools — she thought there were a few things I should know. So she sent me a passionate 1,704-word e-mail titled “Waste at CCSD?”

That’s a common theme among the School District’s harshest critics, that it’s heavy with trimmable fat, but L’s note was more rueful than scathing. She’s saddened by what she perceives as questionable decision-making, squandered materials and bureaucratic blind spots that are bogging down education.

Not all of her complaints sound compelling — show me a sizable operation that doesn’t waste copy paper or fritter away valuable time in meetings for meetings’ sake. Nor is it surprising that there’s some unwieldy bureaucracy. Anytime two or more people work together, the first thing they do is generate reams of paperwork covering their own asses. Given that this is the nation’s fifth-largest school district, there’s going to be red tape.

But she makes some good points, too, some small and specific (why ferry a couple of special ed students to school in full-size buses instead of a properly equipped van?) and others that highlight avoidable inefficiencies. Textbooks that didn’t get used; pricey science kits for grades in which science isn’t regularly taught; school-rehab projects in which fairly new materials get replaced with brand new. “A 1-year-old, perfect chalkboard, recently installed in my room — thrown in a Dumpster.”

Then, of course, there’s the testing, testing, testing.

“My friends tell me the greatest waste in their schools today is the endless red tape, documenting and testing which goes on daily,” she writes. “When I came to the district in 1981, teachers were constantly being cautioned not to ‘teach to the test.’ In today’s schools, there is no time for creativity because, if those endless tests aren’t passed, schools will lose federal funds. Well, guess what the teachers are doing to pass those tests?!”

Teaching to it, of course.

What a waste.

Point taken, L. For me, her e-mail was a nice reminder that somewhere between Sandoval (“Cut!”) and Dickensheets (“Spend!”) there ought to be a reasonable middle ground: Think of it as doing more with not quite so much less.

Here’s hoping Sandoval, the test-happy feds and the rest of us eventually decide to seek it.

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