Our best-funded schools are the worst

The Clark County School District’s new campus rating system lays bare systemic inequities and provides an indisputable statistical foundation for major education reforms.

But it does so in ways that defy conventional wisdom and the educational establishment talking points that too many people take as truth. A significant problem is about to get much worse — and it’s not at all what you think.

As part of Superintendent Dwight Jones’ push for improved transparency and accountability, the district unveiled a five-star ranking system for elementary and middle schools a few weeks back. Schools were scored largely on objective achievement data, with a few subjective criteria mixed in, emphasizing proficiency improvement. This approach allows a previously struggling school that still has substandard overall achievement to pick up a lot of points — and a higher ranking — if students are making substantial gains.

Even with that provision, the rankings provided few surprises. The valley’s five-star schools are, by and large, in affluent suburban neighborhoods, and its one- and two-star campuses are in low-income, urban areas. The Las Vegas Sun quantified as much three weeks ago in an analysis of the rankings, finding that ZIP codes with the highest median home prices were virtually guaranteed to have five- or four-star schools.

That data gave the Sun a launching point for an exploration of the unfairness of having so many poor children trapped in lousy schools. Ken Turner, Jones’ special assistant, told the Sun’s Paul Takahashi the rankings are a “clarion call” for change.

“All kids should benefit, but those who have been traditionally underserved should benefit more,” he said. Schools that received a ranking of one or two stars are now first in line for more teaching positions and more resources — in other words, more money. Jones’ administration believes that approach will help close the gap “between the haves and have-nots,” Takahashi wrote.

We’ve all heard the argument from teacher unions, their lap dogs in the Legislature and other big-government boosters: Schools get better only when we spend more on them. After all, five-star schools in affluent neighborhoods are knocking it out of the park because we spend the most money on them, while we force one-star campuses in poorer areas to limp along on couch change. Right?

Wrong. Reality is upside-down. High-ranking schools in affluent neighborhoods are among the worst-funded campuses in the valley, while the district lavishes dollars on poor-performing schools with little return on investment. A comparison of data from the district’s accountability reports and the new rating system reveals a clear correlation: The less money schools get, the better they do.

The worst schools in Clark County already get the most money — by a wide margin.

First, a few disclosures: The district’s accountability reports for 2010-11 have funding data from 2009-10. I excluded from this analysis a handful of rural campuses with various rankings — Indian Springs, Sandy Valley, Laughlin and Searchlight — because their funding levels are about three times those of urban schools. A handful of charter schools and traditional public schools do not have accountability reports posted online, so they were excluded as well. In all, I examined the reports of 254 valley schools.

At the elementary school level, the typical five-star campus got $8,566 per student; four-star schools got $8,701; three-star schools averaged $8,985 per student; two-star schools got $9,520; and three one-star schools averaged $9,292, less than two-star funding but more than what three-star schools received.

Five-star Bonner Elementary in Summerlin was the top-rated school in the entire district, and it achieved that on per-student funding of just $7,774. Two-star Wendell Williams Elementary, meanwhile, languished with nearly twice as much money, at $14,319 per student.

No middle schools received a five-star ranking this year. The typical four-star middle school received $6,064 per student; three-star schools got $6,899; two-star schools got $6,953; and one-star middle schools got $7,687 — 27 percent more than what four-star middle schools received. Four-star Rogich Middle School, located in Summerlin, is the valley’s third-worst-funded middle school at just $5,700 per kid. Two-star West Prep gets $9,251 per student.

What can explain these disparities? Another clear statistical correlation: As schools enroll more students who can’t speak English, their funding rises and their ranking falls.

At the five-star elementary schools, an average of 20.5 percent of the students are LEP (limited-English proficient). At four-star schools, the percentage rises to 26.6; at three-star schools it’s 31 percent; at two-star schools it’s 43.3 percent; and at one-star schools it’s 50.5 percent. Just 9 percent of the five-star schools had LEP enrollments of at least 50 percent. Meanwhile, 34 percent of the two-star schools had majority non-English-speaking enrollments and two-thirds of the one-star schools exceeded that threshold.

At four-star middle schools, an average of 9.1 percent of the students are limited-English proficient. At three-star middle schools, the share rises to 17.7 percent. It’s 28.8 percent at two-star middle schools and 34.8 percent at the one-star campuses.

Let’s save the illegal immigration debate for another column. The school district is doing a lousy, incredibly inefficient job at teaching English to kids who aren’t fluent in this country’s language. And dumping even more dollars into these schools won’t make a difference.

There are other factors in this inequity, of course. Parents in affluent areas are more likely to be educated, more likely to play an active role in their children’s education and more likely to hold their kids accountable for bad behavior. These schools also do a better job raising money for library books, computers, playground equipment and other extras. As a result, star principals and great teachers rush to take jobs at schools where they’re more likely to be appreciated and feel like they’re making a difference.

For the taxpaying parents in the neighborhoods with the best schools, the Clark County School District’s approach to their own children’s education is maddening. Their schools get the short end of the funding stick even though they pay the most taxes, make out-of-pocket donations and show the greatest commitment to education. And now, when their dollars heavily subsidize low-performing schools for almost nothing in return, the district wants to divert an even greater share of revenue to these campuses?

If having across-the-board excellent public schools were all about money, we would have seen a turnaround years ago.

So let’s try something else. Vouchers. A complete reboot of English-language instruction. An end to social promotion. Mass conversions of lousy campuses into charter schools. More competition. More accountability. No rewards for dysfunction and poor performance.

Our worst schools’ struggles can’t be blamed on a lack of funding.

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

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