Support better education with money

June 10: Today my oldest daughter graduated from eighth grade. She was voted “most likely to have her nose in a book,”—clearly, a chip off the old block. Like any parent, I witnessed this event with a profound mix of pride, hope and dread for the future. Pride, because that girl has come a long way in two short years; hope because she has so much potential. And dread because as a Nevadan I just never know how much support our schools can expect from lawmakers.

It wasn’t always this way. A century ago, when the Comstock bust hemorrhaged citizens out of the state, resourceful Renoites scraped together funds and political clout to invest in education: moving UNR from Elko and building the “four sisters” mission-design schools around town.

Yes, our 2009 legislature came through with a veto-proof budget, and so we breathe a sigh of relief for another cycle. But wouldn’t it be nice if good, solid taxpayer support for good, solid—yes, even excellent—education for everyone, including college students, were a given in this state? What would it be like for students, teachers, parents and principals never to have to worry about next year’s budget, possible layoffs, pay cuts, job or program loss, or even school closures? I know from personal experience in training teachers that Washoe County School District has some amazingly smart and dedicated professionals at work in our classrooms. What could they accomplish if they were freed from biennial budget worries and could concentrate instead on building excellent, innovative programs to prepare kids for the future?

I’m an educator, so for years I’ve had to listen to people who have never set foot in a classroom say that schools are overfunded, that they should be treated more like business, that cutting funding is a form of economic “discipline” that should drive innovation.

That argument is just plain silly for a number of reasons, but the most important is that whenever folks in business or industry want to create something new—be it computer chips or renewable energy—they shovel money toward it. The surest way to shut down innovation—say stem-cell research—is to cut funding.

Educators have proven themselves resourceful in keeping schools running even in the face of punishing budget cuts, but across-the-board cuts do not encourage innovation. They encourage retrenchment. If we want schools to be better and more efficient, we need to actually behave more like business, by seeking out and supporting innovative practices. In uncertain budget times, innovative programs and approaches are the easiest to cut. So, the instability and unpredictability of Nevada’s educational funding practices directly undermines the ability of educational professionals to make real and lasting improvements in our educational system.

Bottom line: Cutting funding for schools only means that “we” prefer that money to go elsewhere, no more and no less. It’s well past time to pretend otherwise.

Washoe County School District stands at a crossroads. The fiscal challenges are enormous. There are deeply entrenched forces pulling against change. But we have a new superintendent coming in, and with change comes possibility. I am encouraged by the model of the “empowered schools” expanding through Clark County and elsewhere, and hopeful that WCSD might commit more firmly to this idea.

My daughter’s graduation reminds me that not all innovation has to be “new.” She flourished in a Montessori school, a century-old educational practice. There are other models with long-demonstrated success in building creative, critical thinkers, and promising ideas coming over the horizon. Given budget security and leadership support, I am confident that we have the brainpower to vastly improve our schools. The important thing is to permanently restore education to the top of our funding priorities, and support our educators in building schools for the future.