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EDITORIAL: How to attract teachers to struggling schools

When there’s an obvious solution to a public policy problem, it’s always worth looking at why it’s not being implemented.

The Clark County School District Board of Trustees recently approved $7,500 bonuses for some support staff workers. The money will be paid next school year to employees who work at Transformation Network schools. That’s the rosy euphemism the district is now using to describe a group of 23 elementary schools that are struggling academically.

The district is trying to provide extra help for those students. That starts with having fully staffed schools. This bonus money will incentivize support staff employees to work at those schools.

For a district that has long struggled to fill all open positions, it’s a sensible move. If the pay is the same, most employees will flock to better-performing schools. The work is generally easier. Those schools are also likely closer to where they live.

That puts struggling campuses into a spiral of doom. Staff doesn’t want to work there because student performance is low. It’s a tougher job with a longer commute. There’s likely more behavioral problems, too. A lack of qualified staff decreases performance and increases violence making it harder to get people to work there. And so on.

It would also make sense to offer teachers similar bonuses. As this school year started, the district had more than 1,450 teacher openings. Those jobs weren’t spread evenly across the district. The best-performing schools had only a handful of openings or none at all. But some struggling elementary schools had 10 or more jobs available. As of this writing, the district has more than 1,400 teacher openings for next school year. It would be nice to think all those will be filled, but that’s unlikely.

The district and Superintendent Jesus Jara have made many poor policy decisions that have exacerbated the teacher shortage. That includes dumbing down grading standards, which has led some teachers to leave the district. Another was pushing schools not to punish troublemakers. That contributed to an increase in school violence.

If the district doesn’t change something, it’s likely those same schools will have many openings next year too.

Mr. Jara told the Review-Journal that he wants to offer financial incentives for teachers willing to work at Transformation Network schools. But the Clark County Education Association “refused to bargain” on the issue, he said in a text message. Mr. Jara noted CCEA’s stance is “unlike the other bargaining units.”

CCEA didn’t return a call seeking comment. John Vellardita, the group’s executive director, said in a February editorial board meeting that “differential pay” to fill positions at at-risk schools was “long overdue.” But the union would prefer higher base pay rather than one-time bonuses. This year, the union sent an email to members decrying potential bonuses as “egregious.”

If the union wants to collectively bargain over differential pay, that would indeed be a step forward. One-size-fits-all pay scales stifle innovation and creativity, discourage high performers and make it more difficult to attract teachers with expertise in certain subject matters.

Democrats in the Legislature have talked a lot about accountability in education this session. But to hold someone accountable, you have to give them the authority to make changes. Unfortunately, Nevada’s collective bargaining law gives unions a de facto veto over many reforms. Legislative Democrats should restrict a union’s ability to undermine school district decisions and then hold the district accountable for results.

But that’s only a secondary point. Imagine you go to a restaurant and a dispute breaks out between the managers and the servers. You’re unlikely to mediate the dispute. Instead, you’re likely to leave the uncomfortable scene and go somewhere. Unfortunately, many students trapped in schools with high vacancy rates don’t have that option.

In the meantime, however, the district’s plan to offer bonuses to attract teachers to schools that are struggling is worth pursuing.

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