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Education must be No. 1 priority

I’m starting this month’s column with a story and then offering an opinion. As you might know if you’ve read this column on occasion, I prefer stories to opinions, because everyone will give you an opinion and not everyone will give you a story. But I received an email recently from a reader who said that while she enjoyed my stories, she was interested in hearing more of my opinions.

I was surprised that anyone would be desirous of more opinions in these overly expressive times, seeing as there are thousands of bloggers on the web for every issue known to man, and half a dozen other columnists at this newspaper opining regularly. Not to mention the countless blabbers on cable networks who treat their opinions as so sacred and profound that they act like their words should be set down on stone tablets and handed to someone who has just parted a Red Sea. Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Lawrence O’Donnell, it doesn’t matter if you lean left or right, hearing any of them gaze soulfully into the camera lens and babble on for more than five minutes can turn a person into a Kardashian fan. (Not really, but you get my drift.)

A long time ago, I taught freshman and sophomore English classes at UNLV. English 101 was a basic composition class, with an emphasis on grammar and punctuation; English 102 an introductory literature class, where students read and interpreted poetry, drama, short stories and, occasionally, a novel. These are important classes for a thousand reasons, but they are also good indicators of a student’s likelihood of success in college. If students can’t write a lick, and can’t comprehend what they read, their chances for success in higher education are extremely limited, unless they are proficient in math or know how to split an atom, in which case they can bypass the liberal arts and go straight to a six-figure income.

For my efforts as a teacher in higher education in the late 1970s, I was paid exactly $1.47 an hour. (I added up the hours of grading papers, student conferences, preparing lectures, delivering lectures, etc., and divided into the monthly check, just to prove to myself that I still had some math skills.) I was single then, and I loved the challenge of teaching, but after three or four years of starvation wages, I was asked by other English instructors to lead a protest march to the UNLV president’s office to demand more equitable compensation.

We got nowhere with our plea. In fact, we were told by the prez (who has passed on) that he thought we were being fairly compensated. When I told him that the change girls at the Golden Goose made quadruple in salary what we were making he said, “Maybe you should learn to make change.”

Clearly, educators at both the college and secondary levels in Las Vegas were — and are today more than ever — underpaid and underappreciated. Included in the role of victims were the students, who saw good teachers leave the profession and qualified teaching candidates who might have entered the profession forced to turn to better paying professions.

Now here’s the opinion: Sadly, not that much has changed in Las Vegas in the 35 years since that strange encounter. With all the wonderful advances our city has made in a number of areas — such as downtown development and cultural offerings, incredible architectural advances on the Strip and beyond, and some noble though meager efforts to diversify our economy — when it comes to prioritizing education, we are pathetic. In street terms, we suck worse than a 20-year-old Hoover.

Just last month, two national reports showed our city and state to be at the absolute bottom of the heap of all 50 states in teaching our young people basic learning skills to succeed in life. Parenting Magazine recently came out with a list of the top-10 worst cities for education in 2012, and Las Vegas ranked Numero Uno. They cited the recession as one cause for the low ranking, and they specifically cited the high pupil-to-teacher ratio and lower than average per-pupil funding as issues that had to be addressed for improvement.

The Maryland-based Annie E. Casey Foundation also released its annual Kids Count data book results, which ranks states on a variety of factors. They rated Nevada 50th in the nation in education. We even got whipped by West Virginia and Mississippi. I rather doubt we’ll see any of our state or city public officials chanting the opposite of that redundant college football cheer by yelling into a TV camera, “We’re Number Fifty! We’re Dead Last!” anytime soon.

The Casey Foundation study reported that three-quarters of Nevada’s fourth-graders are not proficient in reading, and 71 percent of eighth-graders are not proficient in math. Beyond that, 44 percent of Nevada’s high school students don’t graduate in four years. Those are humiliating numbers; embarrassing doesn’t cover it.

Locally, things are just as dismal. In 2010-11, the latest year that statistics were available, the dropout rate for Clark County students had risen from 4.5 percent to 4.8 percent from the previous year.

I know that Gov. Brian Sandoval considers improving education a top priority of his administration. He recently found ways to put every new dollar he could find toward improving education needs during these budget-strapped times. And the governor’s wife, Kathleen, has foregone many of the ceremonial duties of a state’s first lady to continue her career as a teacher and speech pathologist. Their commitment is genuine.

The responsibility is with the rest of us, as parents and proud Las Vegans, to address the educational needs of our children as our No. 1 priority for improving the quality of life here. We need to prioritize improvements in education well ahead of legalizing Internet gaming or funding a bullet train or building another super nightclub on the Strip and paying a DJ $50,000 a night to spin platters.

We all should talk about our education needs constantly, find ways to keep and compensate good teachers, and give our young people every opportunity to compete in an increasingly competitive world.

That’s my opinion … and has been ever since I arrived here.

Longtime Las Vegas resident and author Jack Sheehan’s column appears monthly. He says he loves the city, with all its wonder and weirdness, and thinks it offers the richest menu of writing material on the planet. Email him at jshee32110@aol.com

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