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Failure is Not an Option

As a community, we talk about the need to improve K-12 education. We talk about the problems that our students face in the classroom. We talk about the low graduation rate. We talk about how we are leaving behind children and not preparing them for the workforce. The question is what we can do as the employers in Southern Nevada to help transform our education system? The answer is to successfully advocate for change in Carson City this legislative session - not two years from now - but today. Our students cannot wait another two years. Southern Nevada cannot wait another two years. Every legislative biennium that passes is another two years where our children will not have access to more funding, better teachers, adequate ELL funding, alternative curriculum and additional per-student dollars. Every two years is another two years of students who will not pass the critical third grade reading gauge, two years of dismal sophomore math scores, two years of unacceptable graduation rates and two years of widening the gap between opportunity and achievement. We as a community need the transformation to begin today.

Some numbers to digest: Clark County’s school district is the fifth largest in the nation, with more than 311,000 students reported in public schools, according to a March 2013 headcount. Clark County’s public schools are underfunded. Taking into account that Clark County School District (CCSD) educates about 71 percent of the state’s overall public school population, the disparity creates a major hardship in servicing and educating the majority of Nevada’s students. In a 2010-2011 public school year expenditure comparison study, CCSD spent $8,932 per pupil; in the same time period, Esmeralda County School District spent $38,284 per pupil, with Eureka County School District expending $31,469 per student. While the difference in per pupil funding is due in part to the state subsidizing low population in rural areas with a smaller tax base, the Metro Chamber, during the legislative session, has been championing and heavily advocating for reforming the funding formula to close the gap and create greater equalization – and therefore, better representation – for the hundreds of thousands of students served by the Clark County School District. Clark County needs to begin taking its fair share of the state’s education dollars to provide the necessary programming, support and reform that it needs to create better learning opportunities for children in Clark County. With the 2012 graduation rate at 61 percent and an antiquated funding formula that serves none of the students in the public education system, the time for stagnation has ceased.

Carrying over from the inefficiencies of the K-12 education system, Nevada also has fewer high school graduates attending college in Nevada. Factoring in the drop-out rate, Nevada is last in the country for ninth graders who will attend college after graduating. Nevada’s college graduates also tend to leave the area after graduation, leaving us less of our “homegrown” talent and little to no incentive to keep them here, which disservices all of us with a stake in Las Vegas’ future. More education leads to a better-rounded, engaged population: more education tends to equal more income, less unemployment, better likelihood of voting, volunteerism and civic engagement, and overall better health and well-being. In short, it benefits the entire community to have better-educated students.

The news, however, isn’t all bad. In a recent address to the Metro Chamber, Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust, reported that Nevada’s students are improving faster than the national average in reading (2003-2011), with low-income students improving nearly twice as fast. In addition, after more than a decade of flat achievement and stagnant or growing gaps in K-12, some improvements are beginning to show with regards to elementary school students. Nevada aligns with the Common Core Standards, which advance and foster college and post- high school readiness, and holds students and schools more accountable or progress and performance. Much still needs to be done, however, as Nevada’s performance still trails other states. The business community has a vested involvement to support CCSD, the community and its future employees and employers. We owe it to our community and to the next generation of Southern Nevadans to do better.

Getting into more specific demographics, Clark County’s trend of underfunding continues further. English Language Learners (ELL) comprise a significant portion of CCSD’s student population– more than 53,000 students in CCSD schools are enrolled in ELL services, but the number of ELL-identified students, including both enrolled and others identified as ELL, but not receiving services, climbs to nearly 95,000. This equivocates to 77 percent of the state’s ELLs (for the 2011-2012 school year). ELLs tend to fall behind their peers in academic achievement, according to a recent study by the Lincy Institute. These students, a major demographic within our public school system, require additional resources that simply are not currently available.

Nevada has the highest density of ELLs than any other state in the country, but is one of eight states that does not allocate specific dollars to these students. Through Title III federal funds, Clark County provides $119 per ELL student for ELL support. On a state level, Nevada provides no additional funding.This is an extraordinary contrast to comparison districts such as Broward and Miami- Dade in Florida, which give $4,837 and $4,677 per ELL student, respectively, and Houston Independent in Texas, which provides $2,588 per student.

One of the major topics of discussion in the legislature is the possibility of implementing a Weighted Pupil Funding Formula, which would allocate additional dollars to the needs of specific student demographics, such as ELLs, who struggle academically at all levels (elementary, middle and high schools) to meet academic standards. With such a predominant role in the composition of the public school system, ELL students’ success rates have a direct bearing on the educational performance of our district and our state. To ignore the needs of this key group is to ignore a potential for improving the performance and reform efforts for the entirety of Southern Nevada’s public school system. The Metro Chamber strongly advocates for developing and implementing a plan for ELL funding and programs.

What other impeding factors are contributing to the continued stagnation of Nevada’s K-12 education system? The Metro Chamber is advocating for a fully implemented Pay for Performance program. Ensuring that our students have access to the best teachers, and ensuring that those teachers receive a pay structure that rewards their performance, commitment and efforts to excellence in education, is paramount to increasing a child’s engagement and their chances of success. According to a recent policy recommendation from The Education Trust, a student with three effective teachers in a row will thrive, but backslide or stagnate with three ineffective teachers in a row.

During her address, Haycock remarked upon the importance of rewarding effective teachers, and providing teachers with the appropriate training, support and resources to become effective. She stressed the value of celebrating moments of progress – seeing small and steady gains in math and reading scores, graduation rates and critical benchmarks such as the third grade reading litmus test. Other areas in the country have actively engaged the business community to reward these teachers and tangibly thank them for their hard work in improving the overall quality of life withintheircommunities. Studies have shown that effective teachers in the classroom are more important than lower class sizes in regards to improving results.

Money helps. Quality teachers help. But there are several other issues that can factor into the success of K-12 education in Southern Nevada, and several other areas of opportunity. Increasing Southern Nevada’s youth to blended learning opportunities that integrate digital learning and technology has the opportunity to engage more students and customize learning experiences for students. Another important tenet to improving the educational experience for our children is ending social promotion. The Metro Chamber has aggressively advocated to end social promotion and ensure that protocols are in place to ensure that children read before the end of the third grade, as 74 percent of students who fail to read proficiently by the third grade tend to be less academically successful throughout their K-12 education...and never catch up.

Haycock also emphasized the need to support early education efforts, and how these early investments have a significant impact on low-income and other demographics at risk of falling behind at school. True gaps in achievement, Haycock pointed out, begin before children even arrive at school. Haycock recommended working on building vocabulary as early as possible in a child’s life and minding gaps between opportunity and achievement. Overall, we expect less and spend commensurately less money on children who need the help. We also tend to assign the least experienced teachers to these students, and the results are devastating: children who come to school a little behind tend to leave much further behind. This practice must end.

Early education, and giving our children the opportunities to succeed, isn’t something towards which we should strive – it should already be happening. We can no longer accept excuses for why children aren’t performing well, and instead concentrate on what we can do as a community, as business leaders and as Southern Nevadans, to inspire progress, move forward an effective and rewards- based educational experience and give the children of Clark County a better chance to succeed. Collectively, as a business community with a solid investment in the success of our education system, we can push forward the progress and reforms to create better opportunities for our students and for the future growth and vitality of Southern Nevada’s workforce and economy.

We can do better. By enacting and following through with meaningful reform, we will.