Rory on the EDGE


Rory Reid, Democratic candidate for governor, is the man with the plans. He has posted detailed white papers on his Web site covering economic development, ethics and now education. More plans are in the works.

It's certainly laudable for candidates to research issues and provide detailed explanations of their positions. It's what voters always claim they want: more specifics.

But do they really? In my experience, voters are more likely to base their ballot choices on appearance, personality and the quality of the attack ads. Our current governor was elected on the basis of one relentlessly repeated cliché. I'd like to know just how many people have downloaded Reid's plans and actually read them.

In any case, Reid has positioned himself as the ultimate pragmatist. Based on his plans, it would be difficult to immediately label him as liberal or conservative. This, it would seem, is a smart place to be in this era of political extremes.

Reid's latest plan, released this week, is dubbed "EDGE," which stands for Economic Development through Great Education. Citing the dismal state of Nevada student achievement, Reid's reform plan is to give principals more control over the curriculum, spending and staffing at their schools.

Reid also would revamp the way teacher and student performance is evaluated, using a broader range of criteria than solely standardized tests. Teachers would be rewarded financially if they improve student achievement. Those who aren't getting the job done would be shown the door.

"We need to impose greater accountability on students, teachers, principals, districts and, especially, the governor," the plan states. "We need to give [teachers and principals] the responsibility to produce improved results -- or leave the job to others who will."

These "local control" and accountability approaches are supported by many on the left and the right, as Reid's plan has received praise from both ends of the spectrum.

A third element of Reid's vision is particularly popular on the right: school choice. He wants parents to be able to choose the schools their children attend. The only catch is if the parents live in Summerlin and they want their third-grader to attend an elementary school in Green Valley, they would have to provide their own transportation.

Much of what Reid proposes is already happening on a small scale here. The Clark County School District calls them "empowerment schools." There are 14 operating now, and each has a private sponsor providing $50,000 or more each year.

Reid says the local empowerment schools are seeing improved test scores, the result of giving principals and teachers the freedom to innovate. He wants every school to be an empowerment school.

"Schools will compete to offer the best programs, the best learning environments and the best principals and teachers," according to his plan. "The best schools will thrive. Schools that don't achieve will get new leadership and staff."

Upon reading Reid's manifesto, my first instinct was to question the optimistic promises of local control and new accountability standards. These ideas feel like gimmicks devised by those naturally inclined to blame the teacher unions and the "bloated bureaucracy" for all of public education's problems.

But the fact is, the traditional way of doing things, which may have worked in decades past, isn't working anymore. There is little question that radical changes are worth trying to reverse disturbing trends in our schools.

And so, Reid's embrace of the best new ideas in education, whether they sprouted on the left or the right, is commendable. These proposals might make veteran school administrators and teachers uncomfortable, but frankly that's a good thing. The United States, not just Nevada, needs to upend the status quo in education. We're falling behind the rest of the world, and we're not going to catch up by doing the same old thing.

One flaw in Reid's plan: He insists his EDGE reforms can be implemented and succeed without increased spending. Educators who support his plan say it will cost more money to attract "world-class teachers" and reward them for student success, and to expand professional development programs for teachers. Reid counters that shifting more control to the campuses would allow for significant cuts in administration and overhead at the central office. But he also says outside funding must be sought from businesses and foundations that believe in the reforms and would benefit from a better-educated populace. This will be even more necessary after the 2011 Legislature gouges another chunk from the state budget.

Reid appears to be on the right track with his education plan. It's far from clear, however, whether voters will reward him for his detailed study of this and other important issues. Will all this work matter come Election Day? Sadly, the thousands of wild-eyed Tea Partiers descending on Searchlight this weekend to hear the bleatings of Sarah Palin suggest that the anti-intellectual political campaign usually is more effective.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is the Review-Journal's director of community publications. His column appears Friday.

 

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