Improving education in Nevada will require systematic changes – Engelstad Foundation

Improving education in Nevada will require systematic changes

By Kris Engelstad McGarry

Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019 | 2 a.m.

Education Week recently came out with its latest Quality Counts report card, ranking states by their public education systems. For the first time in four years, Nevada was not ranked last. Instead, the Silver State is now next-to-last (sorry there, New Mexico).

Some are celebrating this uptick, while rankings and studies galore — like U.S. News and World Report ranking our education system 45th in the nation — continue to position us at or near the bottom.

While there are certainly victories stemming from our hardworking teachers, administrators, community leaders, select politicians, parents and kids, there is a crossover component — spanning K-12 and higher education — that continues to fail us all.

That crossover is that our bureaucratic systems simply don’t work. At all.

At its core, the educational landscape in the Silver State is dominated by antiquated administrative structures that lack in production and can certainly be a lot better. And until these are either wiped clean or drastically refreshed, we’ll continue to get graded with F’s and low rankings, no matter how hard we collectively try.

On the higher education front, we’re finalizing an amendment to the state Constitution to change the structure of Nevada’s regents and how they interact with the universities. That change is emerging through a legislative path and a new chapter is on the horizon.

Our K-12 schools are a different systematic concern. Look at the Clark County School District, for example, which is the fifth-largest school district in the U.S., with more than 300,000 enrolled students.

As a starter, we need to explore how people are elected to its school board. Right now, anyone can run for office — which doesn’t mean you necessarily know how to read a balance sheet or have a background in the educational space whatsoever. The result of this structure is that schools aren’t getting the tools they need and the bureaucracy is too big.

Jesus Jara, superintendent of CCSD, is one of the best things to happen to the district in a very long time. He can only do so much, though, and can only work within the confines or system that has been in place for far too long.

We owe the children a quality education — one that, at a minimum, prepares them for a profession or to attend a university and be able to perform. We need to look ourselves in the mirror and say, “Are we in business for our students or something else?”

I, and so many others, want to see a measurable change — true graduation rates, true proficiency rates and seeing kids come out of here better prepared and hopefully staying here.

Until there is this systematic change, we need to hold folks accountable. I’m in the business of philanthropy and there’s a concentrated, genuine effort to try to improve what we see as deficiencies. If we can do something, we’re ready to help.

Some of my proudest philanthropic accomplishments have been right here in Las Vegas. We’re up to 80-plus students graduating from our Engelstad Scholars program at UNLV. I met with our most recent class a few weeks ago, and so many of them are the first in their family to attend college. Many of them say it’s important for them to earn a living so they can take care of their parents and family. These are the kids who are making a full effort and conscious choice to change their future.

I also see nonprofits like Spread the Word Nevada growing an organization from a small space into a massive operation, putting books in the hands of thousands of kids. And there are so many stories of folks in the educational space wanting and producing good things.

With a fundamental shift in Nevada’s archaic educational systems, we can see these results amplified.

Kris Engelstad McGarry is trustee of the Engelstad Foundation.