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The Libertarian

Vin Suprynowicz

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As promised in his State of the State address, Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons last week unveiled his plan for local school “empowerment,” predicting it would take Nevada “off the top of every bad list and put it at the top of every good list.”

“Empowerment schools” -- there’s not yet any bill draft to say precisely how many, at first -- would receive an extra $550 per student. In the current Clark County pilot program, four schools receive an extra $600 per student, which is supposed to be used to reduce class sizes and fund 29 additional minutes of instruction per day -- five additional days per year. Pilot school teachers can also receive 2 percent additional incentive pay if their kids show unusual achievement.

Under the governor’s proposal, principals would be authorized to hire teachers, award incentive pay, set school schedules and develop achievement plans for each student.

Great. Anything that returns more power to the local level is good, and is to be encouraged. At the very least, parents should expect to start getting straight answers and responsive, common-sense decisions direct from their children’s principal or teachers without the mind-numbing mantra “I don’t think the district allows that; we’ll have to check.”

But can the governor’s initiative fulfill even that modest expectation?

The strong likelihood is that to the administrators in charge of our government youth internment camps this is just “one more slogan,” the latest in an endless parade of “reform” sound bites to which they’ve learned to bend like reeds in the wind, paying lip service to “change” so long as everyone understands “This will require giving us more money, of course. After all, we’ll have to hire more regional assistant superintendents in charge of ...” Empowerment Certification and Enforcement, whatever.

In fact, true empowerment should require less money, not more, since an “empowered” principal is no longer in need of minders and enforcers from the district office, processing his endless paperwork and checking to make sure he’s “on the same page” as everyone else. Right? (Did it cost more to administer the old one-room schoolhouse than today’s educratic maze? Of course not.)

“Merit pay” means nothing if it translates into giving more money to everyone. The idea of compensating merit depends on divvying up the same pie differently -- teachers whose kids improve beyond expectations get big raises and bonuses; teachers whose kids languish get no raises at all, regardless of whether they showed up on time and “tried hard.”

But this is anathema to the unions and the administrators who coddle them. Theirs is essentially a movement of levelers -- just as bright kids should not be allowed to race too far ahead of their plodding classmates, damaging the self-esteem of the epsilons, so “solidarity” among the sisterhood cannot be jeopardized by allowing principals to “play favorites,” implying (heaven forfend) that some teachers -- and some teaching strategies -- are more effective than others.

Like, you know ... phonics. Multiplication tables. Reading actual novels. Other than “The Scarlet Letter.”

Principals hiring teachers? Interviewing eager and talented candidates who the district office has turned away -- perhaps even giving preference to applicants with math and science degrees over those who put in their time in the no-one-ever-fails “Ed schools”?

Don’t hold your breath.

Principals giving extra pay to effective teachers, while withholding those raises from slackers and incompetents who can’t even spell?

Assuming the governor’s proposal ever surfaces as a bill draft, at all, watch for the Usual Gang of Suspects to be burning the midnight oil, amending and revising, singing the old siren song that “Politics is all about consensus and compromise” ... with the jealous forces of complacent mediocrity.

In fact, it’s already begun.

“The press release says the principal has autonomy,” bridled Mary Ella Holloway, president of the Clark County Education Association. “That’s not our way. Our autonomy schools work collaboratively: principals, teachers and parents.”

Ah: “collaborative autonomy.” Got it.

The governor showed some wisdom when he declined to invite members of the Nevada State Education Association from participating in development of his plan. But a figure who should be a key ally -- Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio., R-Reno, said last week “My hope is this does not become a partisan issue. ... Education is something we all need to work together on.”

There, surely, is the voice of the status quo.

The folks Sen. Raggio wants to “work together with” presumably include Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, who warned the governor last week he may have trouble getting a modest $60 million allocation to expand “empowerment schools” beyond the current four-school Clark County pilot program.

Why? Because Democrats want to start spending $45 million a year -- which will prove about as sufficient as allocating $45 in gas money for a cross-country trip -- initiating full-day mandatory kindergarten in elementary schools statewide by 2008-2009 ... despite school district studies that show such early incarceration actually hurts some kids’ performance.

Empowerment is a good idea. A bit less enticing is the governor’s plan to create district “design teams” to draw up plans under which principals would then choose their own “school-based empowerment teams” to develop each school’s “empowerment plan.”

Good heavens. Will they be paid by the meeting? By the euphemism? With an added bonus for each inclusion of the words “self-esteem” and “self-actualization”?

And after all those fancy reports are written, bound, and shelved, kind of like the crate containing the Arc of the Covenant being wheeled away into the Giant Government Warehouse at the end of the Steven Spielberg movie? Why, at that point, the governor says: District schools boards will have authority to reject any given school’s empowerment plan.

Ah: “conditional empowerment.” Got it.

You cannot reform an institution which is doing precisely what it was designed to do -- turn out brain-damaged and obedient little soldiers and factory workers without the capability of critical thought. (Is there anything more pathetic than to watch a citizen jury say “It seemed to us they had the wrong guy; we couldn’t figure out what actual crime Scooter commited; but the judge’s instructions didn’t seem to give us any choice ...”?)

You can burn them down. But you can no more “reform” the youth homogeneity camps with new slogans and reorganization plans than you can turn your dog into a vegetable by painting him green -- no matter how dedicated a “team” you appoint to spend a year choosing between lime green, Lincoln green, and forest green.

The only “good list,” Gov. Gibbons, is the ranking of states by the percentage of families who have removed their children from the government-run schools, entirely.

And don’t give me “But only the rich can afford that.” The parents of Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln were not rich, but those literate men never attended a day of tax-funded schooling in their lives. Frederick Douglass got an education not only without government help, but despite the fact that half the states at the time had made it illegal to teach him to read.

As reader D.S. -- from my own home state of Connecticut -- commented today: “The human factory of today’s public schools produces service factotums for a life of dutiful consuming. Raising inquiring and Socratic minds is antithetical to this aim and so we have, in essence, a State-Sanctioned Program of Functional Illiteracy.

“My kids graduated from an 'award winning’ public school in a wealthy district and I spent hours re-writing and helping them learn how to write their college essays. It was a remarkable revelation to me that a high school graduate can gain his diploma without both critical thinking and writing skills.

“It is little wonder that the ongoing slide into a kind of Happy-Faced Fascism continues so effortlessly. One wonders when a proposal to start lifetime public schools might be foisted on this spoon-fed public of prideful dolts.”