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Nevada’s promise unkept

Sometimes it is as important to look at what is not said as what is.

Such is the case with the governor’s blue-education panel that recently published its recommendations for Nevada education improvements under the title "Nevada’s Promise: Excellence, Rigor, and Equity."

It starts with high-minded ambition and a forthright confession, saying that — for America to remain vibrant as an economy and a civilization — we must teach our children well. Then it states categorically, "In Nevada, it is clear we have abandoned this responsibility. By all measures we have failed our children."

Both the 30-page executive summary and the 1,500-page behemoth that is the complete report from the panel and the more than 200 contributors contain the customary general objectives and suggested means to accomplish them.

Among the stated goals by 2014:

— Increase the graduation rate to 85 percent.

— Reduce the achievement gap by 50 percent for minorities on standardized tests.

— Increase graduates enrolling in post-secondary institutions in- or out-of-state by 50 percent.

— Increase the National Assessment of Educational Progress test percentage of students proficient or better on fourth-grade math from 32 percent to 50 percent and eighth-grade math from 25 percent to 50 percent.

— There are similar goals for fourth grade reading, basically doubling those rated proficient or better.

Then the report spells out four different strategies for achieving these goals, most of them nebulous and hard to grasp in reality. For example, Strategy 1 calls for: "Improve student performance through collaboration with key stakeholders such as parents, teachers, principals, employees’ associations, district administrators, state officials, community leaders, and legislators."

Whatever that means.

What is glaringly absent is any concept of free-market competition. The closest the report comes is a few passing references to charter schools, which in most cases are little more than quasi-private schools saddled with most of the stultifying public school rules and bureaucracy.

The concept of vouchers is conspicuously absent.

I could find no recommendation to break up the massive Clark County School District, fifth largest in the country, letting the resulting smaller districts compete, so parents who work in the county might be able to choose where to live based on the quality of schools.

The only mention I could find of competition was one that dismissed the concept as passé.

"The assumptions driving our national policy for assessment have been changing since 1988," the complete report says on page 1,218. "Initially, it was promoted as an important component for establishing the competitive market in education. This now has lower priority, with a shift towards emphasis on target setting for all, with assessment providing the touchstone to help check pupils’ attainments. This is a more mature position, but we would argue that there is a need now to move further, to focus on the inside of the ‘black box’ and so to explore the potential of assessment to raise standards directly as an integral part of each pupil’s learning work."

Whatever that means.

The report appears to assume education is solely a public school function and role. It assumes classrooms full of students assembled in front of a teacher, all progressing at the same rate to the same level of achievement and understanding. All thinking alike.

Don’t despair. There is some hope extant in the real world, if not in this report, for a less assembly line approach in a couple of those aforementioned charter schools. I spoke with the leaders of an online-based charter school perhaps a year ago, and they described how each individual student progressed at his or her own pace, taking as much or little time with a given course as the student needed to become competent in the topic. No social promotions. No having to remain sitting in a seat biding time and waiting for the others in the class to catch up.

Just this past week, retiring Clark County schools Superintendent Walt Rulffes gave lip service to the concept of competition in explaining a new open enrollment program that allows students to attend schools outside their assigned zones. Of course, the vast majority of desirable schools are already overcrowded and not available for transfer.

School "choice is about a free-market spirit, which has been lacking in public education," Rulffes was quoted as saying. "If we don’t do it, someone else will, which is why charter schools, vouchers, distance education and home schools are growing in popularity. Public education must do or die."

But there is little recognition of that fact in the solutions proposed by the governor’s blue-ribbon task force.

Competition is how success and failure are determined. Central planning gave the world the Lada, a rattletrap of a car by most estimations. But competition provides choices. That is why no one is driving Studebakers, Ramblers and Cords, but we have many choices of vehicles more reliable than ever from Detroit, Tokyo and even Seoul. The same can be said of wheat production, the output of cobblers, weavers, bakers and butchers.

Adam Smith in "Wealth of Nations" points out one particularly pricey problem with any monopoly such as a public school system.

"The price of monopoly is upon every occasion the highest which can be got," Smith wrote in 1776. "The natural price, or the price of free competition, on the contrary, is the lowest which can be taken, not upon every occasion indeed, but for any considerable time altogether. The one is upon every occasion the highest which can be squeezed out of the buyers, or which, it is supposed, they will consent to give: The other is the lowest which the sellers can commonly afford to take, and at the same time continue their business."

Almost a century later, British philosopher, economist, moralist, theorist and libertarian John Stuart Mill explains other problems with a monopolistic education system. He called public education the worst possible choice for education, though he did suggest that financial aid to help the poor educate their children was a decent idea.

In his book "On Liberty" in 1869, Mill writes:

"If the government would make up its mind to require for every child a good education, it might save itself the trouble of providing one. It might leave to parents to obtain the education where and how they pleased, and content itself with helping to pay the school fees of the poorer classes of children, and defraying the entire school expenses of those who have no one else to pay for them. The objections which are urged with reason against State education, do not apply to the enforcement of education by the State, but to the State’s taking upon itself to direct that education: which is a totally different thing. That the whole or any large part of the education of the people should be in State hands, I go as far as any one in deprecating. … A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another."

His fear was that once the state gets too involved in education the teaching of facts and ideas would devolve into government-imposed social and political philosophy.

"All attempts by the State to bias the conclusions of its citizens on disputed subjects, are evil," Mill wrote.

Is there any doubt the current products of the public education system list to port in their political leanings?

Mill concludes "a State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes — will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished …"

A little competition in education would allow the marketplace to find a superior education at a more reasonable price, but the governor’s blue-ribbon panel was wearing blinders and never broached the topic.

Thomas Mitchell is senior opinion editor at the Review-Journal. He may be contacted at tmitchell@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0261.

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