Education: Successes, but more to do

Education is one of my top priorities - it was during the most recent legislative session, it is in this new year, and it will be again during the 2013 legislative session. But to understand the changes we've made and what we must continue to do, we must understand a little bit of history.

In the 1950s, Nevada made sweeping changes to its system of K-12 education. The state superintendent was transformed from an elected office to one appointed by the state board of education. More than 200 school districts were consolidated into only 17. The teacher salary scale was altered. And the state enacted a sales tax with an eye toward improving education. As such, Nevada's current public education system was built more than 50 years ago.

Since that time, a number of additional reforms have been made. The Nevada Plan for School Finance was adopted, special-education funding was put in place, a high school proficiency exam was instituted as a requirement for graduation, and millions of dollars were committed to reducing class size in elementary schools. But last year, we took education to a new level, making significant changes to the base system. And, thanks to the hard work of the Nevada Legislature and many stakeholders, I believe 2011 will be viewed as a watershed time in the history of education in the Silver State.

A new level of accountability has been established. In my State of the State address last year, I said we should provide for an improved and innovative means for evaluating teachers and principals, and we did. This system, now being prepared by the new Teachers and Leaders Council, will require for the first time that 50 percent of educator evaluations be based on student achievement data. I also said we should end teacher tenure, and we did. We also put a stop to the antiquated "last in, first out" practice of basing teacher layoff decisions solely on seniority - without regard to which teacher is effective, and which is not. Finally, we made strides toward enhanced parental choice with the creation of the State Charter School Authority.

In addition to the systemic changes we've made at the school district level, my administration is tackling change at the very top. Legislation passed in 2011 gives the governor the authority to appoint the state superintendent and changes the way the State Board of Education is comprised. Now, the state board will consist of four elected officials (drawn from the new congressional districts) and three appointed members.

Late last year, we launched the search for a new state superintendent. I consider this one of the most important appointments I will make during my tenure as governor. Fifteen people have applied for consideration, although three did not meet the statutory requirements. The resumes of the 12 remaining applicants are now under review. I can report that they represent tremendous diversity in experience, geography, vision, and personal background.

At the January meeting of the State Board of Education, the names of six semi-finalists will be released. These individuals will be interviewed in public, video-conferenced meetings on Feb. 22 and 23, and the State Board will vote Feb. 24 on three names for my final consideration. I am eagerly awaiting those names.

Of course, more reform is still needed. I remain committed to the proposition that all students should be proficient in reading by the end of third grade. I want to address the issue of our dropout rate and the needs of English Language Learners. We must do more to prepare our students for the new global economy by embracing digital technology and STEM education. And we must inject more choice into the system, together with an accountability system of assigning letter grades to schools so parents clearly understand how they are the performing.

Fortunately, these plans are also under way - and they are directly connected to our economic development efforts. The State Department of Education is engaged in a five-year strategic planning process, and my office is coordinating with all stakeholders to ensure the plan reflects our economic development goals and our workforce needs. The Nevada System of Higher Education is at the table, and so are the state's Workforce Investment teams. We are working together like never before - our students deserve no less.

When I say that we need new systems in place for public education, I mean it. And when I say that we are working together to see this goal achieved, I am sincere. If we are to build a new economic model, we must secure the promise of opportunity for every Nevada child through fundamental changes in the delivery of education at every level. This not only can be done, it must be done. I believe we're on our way.

• Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval can be reached through his website


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