Reform education in Nevada

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Earlier this month, Nevada’s proposed education policies were given a rank of 21st in the nation, a positive step up from Nevada’s historically low national rankings. The political group behind this report card is StudentsFirst, an education advocacy organization based out of Sacramento led by Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system from 2007 to 2010.

When Rhee stepped up to the plate to reform Washington schools, she made enemies right off the bat. After firing 36 principals, cutting 121 office jobs, and closing 23 schools within the first year of her position, she gained a reputation for controversial decision-making. As she continued to ax employee positions and make big cuts, teachers’ unions and Washington community members grew outraged at her decision to do away with teacher tenure and instead institute incentives for teachers to take pay increases for student achievement. In 2010, Rhee and the Washington, D.C., teachers’ unions agreed on a contract that would provide 20 percent pay increases and up to $30,000 in bonuses for strong student achievement.

While Rhee’s series of restructures had its enemies, StudentsFirst is taking an interest in Nevada’s schools and is recognizing the momentum that it has gained for its educational system in the last few years. With its 56 percent high school dropout rate and a steady history of being among the lowest percentiles of standardized testing, it’s clear that Nevada has needed to change for a long time. Although StudentsFirst has backed Nevada’s proposed education plan, its grade is still equivalent to a D. But the future is looking up. While Nevada still needs to reevaluate its system of laying off teachers by seniority, there are some promising changes on the horizon.

In his “State of the State” address on Jan. 16, Gov. Brian Sandoval said that education and the economy will be his top priorities for the coming year. While he spoke about aggressive reforms of Nevada schools (such as performance-based teacher evaluations), he also spoke about the responsibility of “parents, educators, school board members, legislators and governors” to also have a hand in providing proper educational resources to Nevada’s youth. As segue into his discussion about the state’s economy, Sandoval said, “A quality education is the foundation of economic growth—the key to improving quality of life in our state.” I believe in this message as well.

The growth of a productive economy stems from the growth of a well-educated community. While I’m not suggesting that everyone is cut out for a college education, I entreat students take full advantage of the range of opportunities that are available to them. After all, a high school education is now considered the baseline for a minimum wage job, and without marketable skills, that’s where a person will stay. In my time as a student in Nevada’s education system, I have had friends who took to the structure of public schools like fish to water. But I have also had friends who, despite their strong intellects, did not thrive in or feel motivated by our education system.

While the right group of teachers can do amazing things to inspire their students to learn, the fact remains that many students don’t respond to the current structure. To these students—and parents of these students—it’s important to know that there are other options available. A competitive system where children and parents are allowed to choose their educational programs pushes schools to perform better. Distance education, charter schools, vocational academies and magnet schools are all viable options for acquiring a specialized, challenging curriculum for primary and secondary educations.

With the right cuts and a vigorous reformation of Nevada’s educational system, I think our state will have many positive changes to look forward to.