Making education a priority

For the most part, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, except smart Nevada teens who win National Merit scholarships and promptly leave for out-of-state colleges. That's unfortunate but not surprising. Does anyone dispute that Nevada has one of the weakest higher education systems in the country?

Probably not. Until a couple of years ago, Nevada essentially ran an open admissions university system. That rarely works out. The recent push to require students to earn a B-average in high school to win a seat at a state university struggled because ... well, because that appeared to be a reach. Can you imagine such a debate in Virginia, Michigan or North Carolina?

And even if you earned a B-average in Nevada schools, what would that predict? Among those accepted to Nevada universities, roughly four in 10 end up taking remedial classes in either math or English.

Wait, you say. All this can be explained by the powerful draw of a tourism industry that siphons off our bright sons and daughters before they have a chance to earn a college degree.

Perhaps, but times are changing, cautions MGM Mirage's Alan Feldman, referring to the massive CityCenter, which will employ 12,000 workers when it opens in 2009. Sure, you can clean rooms or park cars without a degree, but don't think of working your way past the first rung of management without a college degree. The front desk workers, the restaurant managers, the maitre d' -- nearly all college graduates.

So there you have it. Vegas has gone upscale. Turns out young Nevadans do need degrees.

Another reality check: Most of your sons and daughters won't end up card dealers or car parkers. They'll compete for the jobs in the global economy with the rest of us. That means Nevada has to ramp up its education system sharply in the coming years. Compared to other states, Nevada currently ranks 49th in college enrollment and 46th in the percent of the population holding a bachelor's degree.

This is worrisome, you're thinking. But it's really a local and state issue. And it's certainly not connected to the '08 presidential entourages passing through town because Nevada is an early caucus state. No need to quiz those candidates about education.

Allow me to respectfully suggest you're wrong there.

In September 1989, the nation's governors met in Charlottesville, Va., to map out a national school reform strategy. Since then, everything has changed.

In recent years, the best ideas in education, from how to design effective preschools to making public universities accountable for spending our tuition money wisely, have flowed from the national level, including national foundations. No Child Left Behind is just the most visible part of this trend.

And that national flavoring makes sense. After all, algebra is pretty much the same from California to Maine. Sharing lessons across state lines about what works makes sense.

So what have the '08 candidates been saying about education reform that would affect your children in Nevada? Not much worth mentioning. We know the Democrats like preschools and the Republicans like vouchers. For the most part, that is. Everybody dislikes No Child Left Behind, but nobody's sure how to replace it.

Surely, there's a better way here.

The Education Writers Association, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of education writers from around the country, has invited all the candidates to sit down with us, one at a time, at a studio offered by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, conveniently located right across from the White House. We'd like to press them a bit on their plans. Politely, of course, but still press them. To date, no takers.

As a counterweight to their silence, we've started a blog about the candidates and education. We have some of the sharpest education writers in the country honing in on individual candidates. Feel free to dip in and take a look: We'll try to make sense of the bits and pieces they utter.

But we need your help. Next time they pass through town, ask what they'd do to help your children compete in the world economy, giving them a shot at something beyond valet parking. (Yes, I know the tips are great.)

We'll keep track of everything they tell you. And maybe in the end, if it all works out for the best, more of those Nevada National Merit Scholars will hang around Nevada a bit longer.

Richard Whitmire is an editorial writer for USA Today and the president of the Education Writers Association.