Las Vegas Sun

October 1, 2014

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Political Memo:

Without a clear definition of what ails education in Nevada, would margins tax help?

Nevadans can rest assured: Nothing has changed.

We’re still at the bottom of the barrel in education.

Nevada ranked last in the nation in a recent report, providing more ammunition for political, business and community leaders to sing, all together now, that our education system is failing, and Nevada’s children deserve better.

The assertion leaves a few questions unanswered: If the education system is failing, what is causing the failure, what’s the fix and who should fix it?

Posed these questions, the schools symphony transforms into a cacophony, and discord doesn’t breed the consensus to do something serious, sustained and sensible for the state’s education financing and policy.

Sure, Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval and the Democratic-controlled Legislature came into some money when a group of economists told them the economy was improving, and they agreed to spend that money on class-size reduction and programs to help students who don’t understand English well.

Nobody would call hundreds of millions of dollars chump change, but for about the next 500 days until the 2014 election, voters will be asked to consider a tax increase that would add $1.6 billion to the state’s next two-year budget.

“We continually spend all this time wringing our hands saying ‘Oh, what is the problem?’” said Dan Hart, a political consultant pushing the tax. “The problem is right in front of us. We don’t fund our schools adequately.”

So says the state teachers’ union, the group that got the 2 percent business tax on the ballot and dubbed it the Education Initiative.

Opponents of the tax, led by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, have emblazoned their motto with one of their main messages: Fix Education First.

Despite various reforms the Legislature enacted in 2011, they argue the system needs more reform before it needs more money.

The question of whether Nevada’s schools are adequately funded is before voters because the Nevada State Education Association has pushed the discussion into the public with its margins tax proposal.

But there are plenty of other unresolved education issues.

Business, political, community and advocacy groups have mentioned poverty, teacher certification and recruitment, parental engagement, early education, charter schools, and more local control in the milieu of the state’s education woes.

Former Clark County School District Superintendent Dwight Jones arrived with a reform agenda before he left with the task incomplete. Former state superintendent Jim Guthrie arrived with another reform agenda before he left after disagreements with Gov. Brian Sandoval.

The state will have new leaders with new agendas, and new experts who may offer new solutions, but there’s still little consensus about reform and how to pay for it.

“It’s a matter of how we fund those changes and what comes first,” said Seth Rau, policy director for Nevada Succeeds, an education nonprofit. “There’s always going to be a finite pool of money in this state. You have to figure out: What are your priorities?”

Representatives from the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance spoke with the Sun last week about their roundtable economic discussions. They also addressed education.

“It isn’t the teachers’ union,” said Glenn Christenson, chairman of the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance. “It isn’t the fact that the school district is too big. It isn’t that there’s not enough money there. It’s all those things. Everybody has to be at the table and understand how we can work together with the resources we have, figure out the problems, and what we need to be as a 21st century city from the perspective of education.”

But with the business community pitted against the teachers union for the next 500 days, there may not be much opportunity for finding common ground.

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  1. Throwing money at a problem, particularly education has seldom worked. Students are either in school or they're not and teachers are either teaching the prescribed curriculum or not.

    Knowing what prevents learning is the key. Is it curriculum, methods, lack of English literacy, etc. Only when we know what is preventing learning can we address solutions. I've not read or heard anything that indicates that confidence exists. I have heard lots of speculation public and private but no one has stated they in fact have the solution. If complexity prevents simple solutions and I don't doubt that is true, the community still needs to know those spending our money have a methodology that adequately measures results so we can move on to the next most likely effort and not waste our dwindling resources.

    I have a strong inclination to believe that regardless of monies spent the results will change little. Past generations graduated higher percentages of students with vastly fewer resources, no air conditioning, little technology and students for whom English was a second language.

    My father spoke only Swedish when he started school in America as did millions of others. Yet, he graduated high school and college, earned his CPA, taught accounting and business courses in college. There were many like him and I guarantee none of those folks succeeded because someone threw money at teachers, staff and facilities.

    I taught at an aviation maintenance school for Marines, Navy, civilians and foreign military students. We were recognized by the Chief of Naval Technical Training for our achievements and many of our instructors were awarded Master Instructor designations. We taught highly technical courses 40 hours a week with strict standards; developed complete courseware including all training aids and even designed from scratch the first set of instructor designed high tech hybrid hardware/software maintenance trainers in the US. It took dedication, discipline by both instructors and students and lots of hard work. We taught foreign military students with whom language was sometimes an obstacle as well as civilians whom didn't always arrive with an attitude and demeanor conducive to learning.

    Despite budget and personnel problems we found ways to motivate instructors and students. Public school systems are different, but the basics of problem solving and willingness to change are the moneymakers.

    In the end, it's people, not things that make the difference.

  2. Let's face it. The best students are back East and the Middle Atlantic states. Plus Minnesota. Why? Because they are all of European backgrounds. Not sure why the South is filled with dopes, but that has to do with cultural differences despite some being European. It isn't going to change anytime soon, and throwing money at a mule won't cause him to move any faster. That's the facts, Jack-and Mary.

  3. In the end, it's people, not things that make the difference - Dale Swanson

    Yes - children, parents, teachers, people in the community.

    Let's begin with children. What kind of family life do they have? Are they healthy? Are they eating enough? Are they sleeping enough? Do they feel loved? Do they feel safe? What values have they been taught? What kind of experiences have they?

    Parents. Are they providing the aforementioned important elements for child development and support to their children? Are they capable of providing it?

    Teachers. Are you equipped to teach the kind of children who are going to be in your classroom?

    Community. What are your priorities?

    The answers to these questions are the clues into the betterment of education.

    Focusing only on one of the elements is not only myopic, it is downright idiotic.

    Adoption of the Common Core and its required and expensive 'staff development,' prescribing educational materials, revamp of teacher evaluation, hiring of expensive 'consultants,' testing, testing, and more testing; providing ipads to each student, school vouchers, charter schools, virtual classrooms, and the many other hare-brained ideas to 'reform' education are akin to a band-aid on a deep wound. They do NOT help children. They siphon money away from schools and into the coffers of the rich!

    And, guess who are making all these decisions to 'reform' education.

  4. Perhaps we should be looking at the success the Nevada Teachers and Leaders Council has had in drawing up a new evaluation instrument for Nevada's educators. A wide range of stakeholders is represented on the Council (See: http://tlc.nv.gov/About/Members/), and there's no reason why this same group cannot examine the problems our schools face and come up with a workable solution for Nevada students' lagging achievement. However, the group needs to know that funding will exist to implement programs intended to address needs. Operating in a "do more with less" environment is not conducive to school improvement. Nevada's schools need both a clear pathway to addressing the very complex problems we face, and the funds with which to address these problems. The TLC and the margins tax in tandem are the perfect vehicles for bringing about much needed improvements in our schools.

  5. Where does any and ALL thinking start??? This is the one factor little attention is given---MENTAL HEALTH!

    Until we, as a society, are willing to address mental health, both access and delivery, we will continue to spin our wheels on academic and social success, as well as human beings of all ages and stations in life, never realizing their full potential, or realize ultimate happiness. Mental health impacts everything, including attitudes, willingness to risk towards meeting a challenge. Every day in our schools, there are children who arrive to their school not ready to learn because their emotional needs are NOT met, and they are a "hot mess" to put it kindly. Such children spend an unproductive day, because they are dwelling, or ideating over things occupying their minds. Furthermore, this impacts the learning environment and their peers, who look to their participation in cooperative learning. Mental health dictates either overcoming or being overcome. This isolates and individual and can be a factor in BULLYING.

    There are reasons few want to there, one huge reason is the intrusion on people's private lives. This is the greatest sacrifice (which does NOT cost money, other than therapists). People don't want to admit they have problems, challenges, in short...any weakness. Why? Because only the strong survive! We all have heard it throughout our lives.

    Yet, when a human being is suffering emotionally, they are unable to function efficiently or well. Every decision has an issue of "soundness". Children leave their homes and arrive at our schools in various states. The children that a lowest performing can have low IQs, physical challenges, or mental health issues. The establishment has failed addressing mental health on many, if not all, levels, due to funding or intrusion impediments or restrictions. That can change, IF we are willing.

    As a small business person, the "margins tax" should of had it start with 2 million dollars. Small business owners do not possess the ability to cushion themselves at the 1 million dollar level. As an educator, funding needs to be sustainable and adequate, so time will tell if the "margins tax" will pass that smell test. How we tax mining and other industries, revisiting century old laws and adjusting them would serve us much better in the long haul. Nevada's mineral resources are more than just gold and silver, keep that in mind.

    Blessings and Peace,
    Star