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Playing games with education

An open letter to prospective Nevada businesses:

Dear business owner,

A hearty thanks for thinking about moving or expanding your operations into Nevada. We’ve been hit awfully hard by the Great Recession, but we’re still standing. Nevada’s economy is showing signs of recovery, and with more employers such as yourself putting our residents back to work, a return to prosperity isn’t far off.

You have a lot of factors to consider before you decide whether to open shop in the Silver State. One of the most important, no doubt, is education. If you’re transferring employees here, they’ll want their kids to be in good schools. And if you plan to hire locals, you’ll want some assurance that applicants who grew up here have enough skills to meet the requirements of your positions.

By now, you’ve probably heard that our schools stink. We get that a lot.

There are plenty of reports, which can be found a few key strokes into any Internet search, that rank Nevada at the bottom of many categories: dropout rate, graduation rate, per-student funding, percentage of high school graduates who attend college, percentage of workers who’ve graduated from college. It’s understandable that these numbers might steer you elsewhere.

But sometimes, numbers — like politicians — don’t tell the whole story.

You may not realize it, but in seeking the information you need to make your decision, you’ve become a pawn in much larger game that’s been playing out for years.

It’s no coincidence that the folks in Nevada who complain the loudest about our schools, who most frequently say we’re 50th among the states in this or that, who claim we need to pour much greater sums of money into public education, are the people most responsible for the structure and performance of our schools.

The purported champions of public education — teachers unions and the Democratic Party — are staunch defenders of the status quo. They just want more money. And they want that money to come from you.

Our Legislature, which thankfully meets for only four months every two years, convenes in six weeks to confront declining revenues. A number of lawmakers are openly hostile to business — our job-killing payroll tax is a testament to that — and want companies such as yours to pay higher taxes.

These folks were agitating for bigger taxes on businesses long before the recession. But the downturn has allowed them to put a new spin on their old demands: Relatively low taxes won’t attract businesses that will diversify and grow our tourist-dependent economy, they claim, but higher taxes and increased spending on education might.

UNLV recently released a high-minded white paper outlining exactly that argument, called “Nevada: 50th in the Nation for Education?” The paper is the product of a round-table discussion involving “40 Southern Nevada professionals.” You can guess its conclusions once you realize that a majority of those 40 panelists are public employees or government functionaries.

“We can no longer short-change the state’s public schools, colleges and universities because of a lack of financial, political, social and economic will. … Business leaders must push the political debate beyond the limited-taxation, no-taxation paradigm,” the report says.

At this point, many of our so-called leaders stand to gain political capital from your decision to stay out of Nevada — a decision they want you to pin on the less-than-honest information about our schools they’ve provided to you.

They don’t want you to know that a lot of our schools are quite good, and some are, in fact, excellent.

Surprised to hear that? Let me explain.

Where you’re from, you probably have lots of school districts in any populated area. Parents who are especially committed to the quality of their children’s education choose to live within the better school districts.

Here in Las Vegas, the Clark County School District is a public education monopoly, the fifth-largest in the country. The size of that bureaucracy creates problems with responsiveness, accountability and administrative culture. It’s in desperate need of competition.

But as with large cities that have several school districts, Las Vegas has public schools with records of high achievement, student safety and impressive parental involvement. These schools have exceptional teachers and principals — and much lower turnover among students and educators.

So where do the dismal rankings and bad reputation come from? The dozens of low-performing, unsafe, urban schools that lack meaningful parental involvement — and significantly outnumber the better ones.

Meanwhile, the statement that Nevada has the worst-funded schools in America is a flat-out, apples-and-oranges fraud. The low-ball figures Nevada reports never include construction and other types of non-classroom expenses.

Besides, study after study has shown no correlation between spending levels and student achievement.

The Clark County School District’s school-by-school accountability reports bear that out. Some of the district’s highest per-student funding levels are at low-achieving schools with large numbers of non-English speakers, while some of the lowest funding levels are at high-achieving suburban campuses. Check the figures out for yourself at www.ccsd.net.

The aforementioned UNLV white paper pans Nevadans for not placing a greater value on education. Yet voters have authorized tax increases targeted to schools, including billions of dollars for the most aggressive school construction campaign this country has ever seen.

Poll after poll shows Nevadans value education more than any other government service.

I wish I could say with certainty what type of tax climate you’ll be entering, but I can’t. Nevada is at a political crossroads. Impatience with the recovery could send us down the path high-tax states have taken to preserve spending levels regardless of the economy’s ability to support them. Our Gov.-elect, Brian Sandoval, has promised to veto tax increases, but the Legislature could come up with the votes to override him.

What I can say with certainty, however, is our education system isn’t nearly as bad as advertised. I hope you’ll take the time to look into it.

And I hope you won’t base your decision on whether to do business in Nevada on the exaggerations of a vocal group with ulterior motives.

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is a Review-Journal editorial writer.

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