By VERNON ROBISON
In the last few weeks, I’ve been interested to see the issue of educational reform become a particularly hot topic. The debate over bringing educational decision-making home has suddenly reached a fevered pitch in an intense community dialog like never before.
Of course, this is not a new struggle. For more than ten years this reform movement has appeared in various forms. Early on it was the fight for Empowerment. More recently, it popped up in advocacy for Assembly Bill 394, to reorganize and decentralize the Clark County School District (CCSD). And in the past few weeks, it has come up again; this time as a few local parents have inquired about the possible ramifications of yet another piece of legislation: AB 448. Through this law, local advocates have seen a possibility to pull our four local schools out from under the stifling control of CCSD and bring them entirely under a home-rule model, under the loose supervision of the state’s newly formed Achievement School District.
To be sure, restoring home rule to schools has been the goal for this group all along. But for some reason, this particular iteration of reform has become a sharp bone of contention. Something about this latest idea has pushed the panic button on many local teachers.
In a recent meeting about the idea, a number of teachers expressed significant fears about the plan. These included concerns about maintaining adequate education funding and services at the schools, teachers keeping their own job security and seniority in tact, preserving the stability of their income, and ensuring that their health and retirement benefits be retained through any transition. To be sure, all of these were valid concerns. Indeed, each of them would have to be addressed and resolved in order for any plan to move forward.
But there was yet another concern that surfaced that had not been heard before, at least not by me. I was surprised to hear apprehension from teachers about the very core idea of home rule. Some actually feared local decision-making, dreading that a hysterical parent group-think might emerge that would hijack the process and become more of a stumbling block than a reform. Faced with such a possibility, some teachers expressed a preference for the status quo. Amazingly, many preferred to remain mired in the CCSD bureaucracy than to face, what they fear might become, a bitterly divided local parent mob.
In the end, teachers wondered what these reforms would do to improve their day-to-day work. They asked pointed questions. What’s so wrong with the way things are going in our classrooms now? How will this reform really change anything?
Perhaps an attempt at answering the last of these questions will help resolve the rest. What will these reforms change? The answer has two parts. On the one hand, it will change nothing. But on the other hand, it would change everything! Let me explain.
Local parents recognize that this community is blessed with excellent teachers. Our teachers are the most expert, effective and devoted in all the district, probably in the state. This claim is evidenced by the outstanding performance of our four schools which long have been the shining stars of the CCSD. None of these reform efforts have been aimed at changing the fantastic job that our local teachers do. It is truly unfortunate, and heartbreaking to me as a parent, that the current reform efforts are being perceived by some teachers as pitting parents against them. Nothing could be further from the truth!
The real goal of this effort has always been clear. It’s vision and guiding light is simple. We have actually seen it work before. In fact, it came to fruition briefly in the Moapa Valley Empowerment High School between the years of 2008 and 2012. During that brief time, MVHS was actually governed by a team of local folks. Teachers at the school had a major part in that team. So did parents, administrators, support staff and community members.
This team met twice a month, sometimes for hours at a time, to discuss nearly every aspect of running the school. Their decisions were final. They included issues of staffing, budget, scheduling, student behavior policy, curriculum, dress code and just about everything else.
I was privileged to witness the work of this committee first hand and was astonished at what it accomplished. Through a collaborative atmosphere, the team faced tough decisions and came up with unique and innovative solutions, tailor-made for that school alone.
Teachers input was greatly valued. They regularly brought ideas for improvements to the committee. Sometimes the teachers asked for funding to provide equipment or technology needed in the classrooms.
Parents were also engaged. They often asked for clarifications on policies that puzzled them.
The concerns of administrators were also discussed. The principal often sought advice from the team on difficult budget and staffing decisions. Anything and everything was open for meaningful and constructive discussion.
There was no hysteria. The various factions on the team never attempted to dictate over one another. There was no fighting, no contention. There was disagreement at times, as one would expect. But every decision of the board was made with a unanimous vote. If all did not agree on the final action, the discussion would continue until an acceptable compromise was reached. And, in my experience, it always was.
This collaborative model achieved amazing things at MVHS during that time. Anyone involved in the process, will remember it as a brief golden age in Moapa Valley education.
Those days seem like a long time ago. Things have changed drastically since. If that model had been allowed to flourish and expand to the other three local schools, the current reform efforts would not be necessary. But such was not the case.
By 2013, the Empowerment team had been all but dissolved. The CCSD bureaucracy, with its fleeting attention span for any lasting reform, had moved on. Power gradually shifted back to CCSD central. No longer allowed any real autonomous authority, the Empowerment team faded out as an effective collaborative body.
But local parents have not forgotten the lessons and successes of those years. That model has remained the goal for them. They have continued their fight to bring it back and to make it permanent; no longer subject to bureaucratic whim.
A local charter, being run under the state’s Achievement School District (ASD) is proposed to do just that. It would establish a mechanism to set our four school Empowerment teams in motion, giving them all the tools and support needed to bring success. And they would no longer have the CCSD bureaucracy hovering overhead always struggling to fill any power vacuum.
So let’s go back to that original question: What would Empowerment change in local classrooms?
Again, on the one hand, it would change nothing. Teachers would continue to do the great job they are doing. No one wants to get in the way of that.
On the other hand it would change everything! If teachers needed something in the classroom, there would be a quick and local avenue open to seek it. If they saw a simple change that could solve a problem or make a difference in their school, they could present the idea to the school’s Empowerment team and have it addressed then and there. No need to run the idea up the flagpole, only to have it bogged down in the CCSD central office quagmire. Simple and effective changes could take place immediately, with decisions made among peers, friends and neighbors.
By the same token, if a parent or student had a concern about policy, it could be discussed, deliberated and resolved in one local meeting. Teachers and staff would have an equal say in the conversation. We are not talking about mob rule! On the contrary, issues could be explored, possibilities debated, and a sensible, rational decision made.
Rather than being a dividing factor, the MVHS Empowerment team brought about a true partnership between all the school’s stakeholders. It brought everyone together to work toward the common goal of improving education. The same model, set loose in all local schools, would open a whole world of possibilities and solutions. These would not be cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all initiatives mandated by an urban central office. Rather they would be specifically conceived and crafted by local stakeholders in the school, to fit unique local needs.
What would such a model change in the classroom? It is not possible to overstate, nor to fully foresee, the major paradigm shift this would bring to local education. It would infuse nothing short of a sea change of innovation and enthusiasm into the work that goes on every day in the classrooms at our schools.
These reforms are not born of a desire for parents to sieze control and bind teachers or administrators to their will. Rather it is about a desire of the community to solve our own problems and forge our own improvements by the people right here who are most familiar with them. In the end, it is about removing the shackles of bureaucracy from our schools, and setting our magnificent local teachers free to do what they do best: being the best teachers anywhere.