Walt Rulffes retires

Four years ago, the Clark County School District conducted a nationwide search for a superintendent to replace Carlos Garcia, whose academic successes in the nation's fifth largest district were not impressive.

A group called the Council for a Better Nevada recruited New York City school official Eric Nadelstern. Mr. Nadelstern oversaw a division of the New York City system called "the autonomy zone," in which principals at about 180 smaller schools signed contracts committing them to meet certain academic standards or risk being fired.

But in the eleventh hour, Mr. Nadelstern withdrew his name, a move his supporters attributed to local school board members' division over the direction of the district. (It's unlikely Mr. Nadelstern was a favorite of the unions, either.)

The board ended up promoting from within, naming interim Superintendent Walt Rulffes as the district's 10th superintendent.

Thursday, Mr. Rulffes announced this will be his last school year; he will not seek to renew his contract past August.

Considering the consensus at the time was that Mr. Rulffes would probably prove a competent interim manager until the time came to try again for major change, his performance has been better than expected. Walt Rulffes championed the "Empowerment School" program, which has achieved considerable good by granting school principals somewhat more autonomy. He also created new and popular "career and technical academies" throughout the valley.

Mr. Rulffes tried what seemed feasible; he made improvements. But progress at the finish line -- particularly as measured by standardized tests -- has been small.

Why have Nevada students been unable to escape the educational cellar, while Florida's fourth graders -- whose test scores essentially matched ours in 1998 -- are now a full grade level ahead of ours?

The Nevada Policy Research Institute looked into that question last week. The short answers? Florida has a robust program of 350 autonomous charter schools, serving more than 100,000 students. Florida created a corporate-tuition scholarship program that allows 23,000 low-income kids to attend the school of their parents' choice.

Florida reformed teacher recruitment by creating a genuine alternative pathway for adult professionals to become state-certified. And most dramatically, Florida banned social promotion out of the third grade -- if the child cannot read, he or she repeats the grade or takes a remedial summer-school program.

It's tough to change the course of a lumbering bureaucracy under divided command -- one that's also taking orders from their intransigent union bosses. Mr. Rulffes is to be congratulated for the way he played the hand he was dealt. But Nevada taxpayers cannot be expected to continue paying more than they can afford for less than their children deserve.

Clark County's next superintendent should be someone from outside -- not just outside this school system, but a non-educrat with a big pair of hedge-trimmers and the courage to turn down bribes from the federal Department of Education if they just harden the arteries of "the way things have always been done."

Our schools need someone with the courage to push real reform on reluctant lawmakers -- reform involving campus autonomy, hiring and firing, compensation for high-achieving teachers, school choice, alternative licensure ... the list goes on and on.

Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron" -- the story in which ballet dancers perform with weights tied to their ankles, so as not to hurt the feelings of less accomplished jumpers -- was supposed to be a satire, not a plan. When will Nevada's best and brightest again be given an opportunity to excel?