COMMENTARY: The Clark County School District’s spin

As famed economist Ludwig Von Mises observed many years ago, the first priority of any bureaucracy will always be self-preservation.

While defenders of government-run schools have largely succeeded in obscuring this fact from the public, the Clark County School District is doing its very best to remind us of just how valid Mises’ insight remains.

Because the district has failed so many students for so long, the number of students transferring to charter schools has soared in recent years. But rather than celebrating the fact that more children are finally able to attend a school that better serves their needs, district officials plan to hire a marketer to discourage others from doing the same.

The move is particularly galling given the district’s constant complaints regarding teacher shortages and overcrowded classrooms — both of which would seem to be alleviated by having fewer students to teach. So what gives?

Because fewer students mean fewer dollars from the state, the position was created “to raise money for the district by bringing children back in,” according to Trustee Carolyn Edwards.

And that’s what happens when a bureaucracy that values its budget over student well-being is tasked with providing education — tax dollars get spent trying to keep children trapped in a failing system just to protect district’s bottom line.

Viewing students as funding mechanisms is certainly the most destructive example of the district’s bureaucratic mindset. But it is far from the only one.

Despite being a public agency funded by tax dollars, and thus obligated to provide accurate information, district officials routinely deceive the public when seeking to advance their own interests. In an April press release asking for more tax dollars, for example, trustees falsely claimed that the district has “cut more than $770 million from its budget since 2009.” In reality, the district’s budget is up nearly $300 million from 2009. The alleged cuts are government-speak for a smaller than desired increase.

District officials have even gone so far as to impugn their own self-reported data when it threatened to paint the district in a negative light.

Every two years, the U.S. Department of Education surveys schools across the nation on a variety of metrics, including each district’s rate of “chronic teacher absenteeism” — defined as teachers who missed 11 or more days of regular classroom instruction that year. In late 2016, the district’s chronic teacher absenteeism rate of more than 50 percent was highlighted in a Washington Post story on the 2013-14 school year data. Mike Barton, the district’s chief student achievement officer, reportedly responded to the data by declaring that, “I don’t want for one minute for people to think that we are ignoring this. This is something that we want to make sure improves.”

Barton’s desire to remedy the problem was justified. Research has shown that such high rates of teacher absenteeism seriously harm student learning.

Unfortunately, when the local news reported last month on the new 2015-16 data — which saw the district’s chronic teacher absenteeism rate rise to 59 percent, more than triple the rate found at the median school district nationwide — the district responded by issuing an inflammatory statement that sought to discredit the data as flawed.

But because the data is self-reported, the district’s statement could be true only if the district had failed to follow the federal government’s reporting guidelines. And since these guidelines have been in place since the survey’s inception, why was there no mention of the alleged data problems when speaking to the Washington Post in 2016?

An inquiry seeking to understand the dramatic change in tone from district officials, and whether they had in fact failed to follow the federal government’s reporting guidelines — as their statement suggested — went unanswered.

Nevadans rightfully expect that their education tax dollars will go toward student learning, not PR and marketing operations designed to protect a bureaucracy’s budget at student expense.

In addition to continuing to promote charter schools, lawmakers should immediately fund Nevada’s Education Savings Accounts, expand the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program and pursue reforms that put parents — not bureaucrats and politicians — in charge of how education dollars are spent.

Robert Fellner is director of transparency research at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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