For better schools, we must pay

If the “Ed in ’08” campaign accomplishes its main goal — to convince the presidential candidates to make education reform a top policy priority — the business leaders behind the effort will not have spent $60 million in vain.

And if the presidential candidates do focus on the public schools and develop concrete ideas to make them better, it could lead to new and better strategies to increase student achievement.

But while Ed in ’08 is a welcome addition to the political playing field, let’s be realistic about a couple of things.

The first is that the president of the United States is not in a great position to implement education reform. The way things are set up, most funding and policy decisions are made at the state and local levels. For the most part, the president is relegated to using the bully pulpit of the White House to champion the reform cause.

Second, most serious education reform proposals come with hefty price tags, which, as we know all too well in Nevada, is a major stumbling block to progress. Ed’s broad reform plan is no exception.

Documents on Ed’s Web site outline a platform that, generally speaking, makes sense. There are three components: national standards, “effective” teachers and a longer school day and school year.

We do not have national standards today. Some states have rigorous expectations, while others do not. As a result, some students are prepared to advance to higher education and advanced training programs — vital to compete in today’s global marketplace — while others are not. And the most troubling aspect of this, according to Ed, is that those states lacking rigorous standards are “vastly inflating how much their students are really learning.”

Ed’s plan to have “effective teachers in every classroom” has two elements: higher teacher pay and comprehensive measurement of teacher performance.

“We know teachers matter, yet we do not act like it,” Ed asserts. “We do not give teachers the same opportunities for advancement and better pay that other professionals enjoy. We do not offer higher salaries to compete with other professions for adults who have strong math and science backgrounds. And we do not pay teachers more even when we ask them to take on harder jobs.”

Regarding teacher performance, Ed in ’08 supports measurements that take into account more than merely year-end student test scores.

The third part of Ed’s plan calls for longer school days and longer school years. “Too many American students are not getting the time and support they need,” Ed argues. “Some fall behind academically and never catch up.” Other nations require students to attend school an average of 13 more days per year than we do.

Besides the extra class time and opportunities for one-on-one instruction, a longer school day would allow schools to offer valuable activities such as art, music and physical education that have been reduced or eliminated in recent years.

On its face, the Ed plan is sound. It combines common sense with proven experience. But what isn’t taken into account are the significant costs associated with initiatives such as higher teacher salaries and longer school days.

As a liberal or progressive (pick your poison), and with two kids coursing through the public schools here, I’m ready to sign up now to increase Nevada’s education spending. I’m ready to raise teacher pay, reduce class sizes, extend the school day and school year, etc. As a media colleague likes to say, Nevada conservatives who oppose “throwing money” at education don’t have anything on which to base their criticism. Nevada has never tried throwing money at public education, so we really don’t know whether it would work or not.

But while I’m eager to boost education funding, it’s clear that a fair number of my fellow Nevadans do not share my enthusiasm. These folks tend to fall into one of three categories:

1. Those possessing a fervent conservative philosophy that inherently opposes increasing government funding for anything on the premise that most things can be done better and more efficiently by the private sector. (This group, incidentally, is not in sync with three of the most successful businessmen in modern American history — Bill Gates, Eli Broad and Louis Gerstner, members of the Ed in ’08 steering committee.)

2. Those who heard somewhere — probably on talk radio or from a loud-mouthed uncle — that the school district is an evil, gluttonous beast that gobbles taxpayer dollars like candy and needs to clean house before we give it another red cent.

3. Those who have not taken the time to study the issue and gullibly embrace the “conventional wisdom” espoused by members of groups one and/or two.

Ed does not have an answer for these folks.

Ed also doesn’t have an answer for that segment of Nevada voters who don’t believe education should be a top priority. This group’s most visible members, sad to say, are parents who don’t support their children’s education. A teacher friend of mine says the students who have problems are almost always the ones whose parents don’t care about school.

It’s these parents who tend to vote against their children’s best interests. Rather than supporting candidates and initiatives that support education, they vote against them — or they don’t vote at all.

In light of these and other challenges, Ed in ’08 has a naive taint to it. Here’s an excerpt from its “policy primer”: “We need to move beyond Republican and Democrat, progressive and conservative, so we can reach consensus on how to make our schools beacons of learning and pathways to progress.”

In an ideal world — say, the era of the Constitutional Convention — this statement would resound with common sense and wisdom. Benjamin Franklin could have uttered those words. But in 2007, we know better than to believe that partisanship can be stripped out of the education debate.

For Ed’s proposals to come to fruition, a Democrat will have to win the White House next year. Then we can only hope this progressive-minded new commander in chief will be able to find the time to lead a revolution in public education. Reforming the noxious elements of the No Child Left Behind Act would be a great start.

But unless it is federalized — a highly unlikely event — education remains primarily a state and local issue. In Nevada, the best hope is that demands for increased education funding and reform will rise from the grass roots. That means parents must become a more potent lobbying force.

It’s all well and good for parent-teacher organizations to sell candles and hold bake sales to buy computers and books. More power to ’em. But what’s really needed is for these active, concerned parents to expand the scope of what they hope to accomplish.

They could rise up and make the case for smaller class sizes, for higher teacher pay, for a longer school day — all the things Bill Gates and other business leaders know are essential to maintain America’s competitive edge in the world. They need to fight back against the anti-everything crowd that wants to tear down the public schools rather than build them up.

Nevada is overdue for a vocal, organized pro-education lobby. Perhaps Ed in ’08 will serve as a catalyst.

Geoff Schumacher ( is Stephens Media’s director of community publications. He is the author of “Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas” and, coming in February, “Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue.” His column appears Sunday.

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