Nevada Governor's School Plan Questioned

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Nevada educators are raising questions about Gov. Jim Gibbons' pilot project to improve public education by giving principals more control of schools and letting parents pick which schools they want their children to attend.

The Republican governor's "empowerment" plan is based on how schools are managed in the Edmonton Public Schools in Alberta, Canada. In that 80,000-student system, principals control their budgets, and about 92 percent of the system's $650 million general fund budget goes directly to the schools.

In Gibbons' State of the State speech Monday, he said more control will give educators and parents more power to determine how students are taught, and that freedom will in turn increase graduation rates, parental participation and teacher recruitment.

The main concern Keith Rheault, state superintendent of public instruction, has about Gibbons' proposal is the source of the funding. Gibbons proposed $60 million in "empowerment" spending for 100 Nevada schools.

Rheault said at least half of that money is coming from what could have otherwise been additional retirement benefits for teachers working in at-risk schools. Rheault said former Gov. Kenny Guinn's proposed budget had $30 million allocated for those benefits, but Gibbons' proposed budget eliminated that allocation.

"It's not new money," Rheault said. "It's redirected money that isn't appearing in Gibbons' budget."

Andrew Clinger, Gibbons' budget director, said the money was a
retirement credit initiative that wasn't working, according to what school districts had told Gibbons' administration.

Rheault said eliminating the retirement perks could jeopardize the state's standing with the U.S. Education Department. As part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Nevada was required to submit a corrective plan showing how it would increase the percentage of highly qualified teachers working in at-risk schools.

"A key component of our plan was to offer financial incentives," Rheault said. "If those incentive funds are redirected, it could slow down our progress at closing that equity gap."

Rheault also said he listened in vain to Gibbons' speech for any mention of the educational blueprint that had been drafted by the state's 17 district superintendents as a focus for legislators.

Paul Dugan, superintendent of the Washoe County School District,
said he also was disappointed that Gibbons made no mention of the
superintendents' goals.

"Did we as superintendents somewhere along the line miss an opportunity to get him (Gibbons) more informed, or was it a conscious effort on his part to ignore it?" Dugan added.

Clark County Schools Superintendent Walt Rulffes, who served on the incoming governor's transition team, said Gibbons' remarks on education left him "completely in the dark on what the governor's
program is."

Rulffes also questioned whether Gibbons' empowerment plan might
force a phase-out of a similar program in southern Nevada.

Gibbons made no mention of the state's ongoing struggle to recruit and retain teachers, and didn't address the issue of an ever-growing population of students for whom English is second language. Both issues are central tenets to the superintendents' proposal.

"I think the superintendents feel somewhat dismissed," Rulffes said. "The omissions of such critical issues - how do you empower
teachers you don't have?"

Supporters of the Gibbons' empowerment initiative said some critics are just averse to change, and the change is necessary and based on a proven model.

"Today principals don't have any authority or very little authority over their budgets," state Sen. Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, said. "This proposes to give principals the authority to run their schools as they see fit, with the responsibility to do it well."

Gibbons chose the Edmonton plan and the ideas espoused by its former superintendent, Michael Strembitsky on the advice of Maureen
Peckman, executive director of the Council for a Better Nevada, an
activist group made up of southern Nevada business leaders.

Strembitsky, who also has also consulted with the Clark County School District on its fledgling empowerment pilot program under way at four elementary schools, said the program led to increased student performance on standardized test scores in Edmonton.

Gibbons spokeswoman Melissa Subbotin said $45 million of the $60
million Gibbons was proposing to put into the program was for implementation, with the other $15 million earmarked for merit pay for teachers.

Merit pay and open enrollment were highlighted in Gibbons' speech Monday, and Subbotin said that merit pay was emphasized because it will be part of a new model that won't look exactly like Edmonton's.

"We're talking about Nevada's program, not Canada's," she said. "We're taking the ideas from the Canadian model, but it won't be a mirror image."

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)