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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The Evolution of Local School Autonomy in Clark County

By Guest Blogger — November 03, 2017 4 min read
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This month, Rick is out working on a new project exploring the lessons of Bush-Obama school reform. In his stead, we’ve got a terrific lineup of guest bloggers. Kicking us off this week is Mike Vannozzi, a VP at TSC2 Group, an outfit involved in Nevada school reform.

As I’ve written in previous blogs on Monday and Wednesday of this week, I’ve spent the better part of a year working on the Clark County School District reorganization. This reorganization is based on the work of Mike Strembitsky, a Canadian educator that pioneered the concept of local school autonomy back in the 1970s. Strembitsky’s concept is simple and straightforward. As he wrote in his “Plan to Reorganize the Clark County School District,” in an autonomous model, local schools should have the ability to “respond to local circumstances, provide an arena for the creative and innovative talent of staff, and accept ownership for the education of the pupils it is charged with serving.” In this model, a great deal of money and authority is given to the local school principal, and the district acts as a service agency to the schools. Strembitsky’s reform is not new to Clark County—in fact, the state of Nevada has been working on this type of reform for more than ten years.

Flash back to 2006. The Clark County School District (CCSD) needs a new superintendent. As usual in Nevada, the fight over the new superintendent pits some career district officials against people in the business community, with school-board members in the middle. On one side, we had the interim superintendent of the district, Walt Rulffes; on the other, we had school reformer Eric Nadelstern. Two years into his tenure with then-NYC Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein, Nadelstern was beginning to make his mark using another local school autonomy reform, the empowerment model, in New York City. The business community in Nevada was enamored with Nadelstern’s ideas, but after some debate, the board of trustees selected Rulffes.

Fast forward a few months: the Nevada legislature is interested in reforming the education system in Clark County. At the behest of the business community, legislators bring in Dr. Bill Ouchi from UCLA to give a presentation entitled “Power to the Principals: Decentralization in Three Large School Districts.” In it, he praises Strembitsky for his approach to school-district decentralization. Rulffes, the newly appointed superintendent, also brings forth a proposal: to set up a four-school empowerment zone pilot program in Clark County. Seeing agreement, the legislature passes an empowerment school law in 2007, and Strembitsky himself is brought in to help.

Between 2007 and 2010, CCSD expanded its empowerment school pilot from 4 to 18 schools. Working with Strembitsky, CCSD meticulously unwound its centralized budgeting structure so that it could provide the most money and autonomy possible to these pilot schools. This work was the basis from which the current decentralization rests today. On top of that, the district used general fund money and grants to give each school a bit of extra money to pursue certain academic strategies. This seemed to be the compromise of reform: more money and more reform. And it worked well. The 18 schools in the pilot raised their achievement. But then, the recession hit. Las Vegas was the hardest hit of all large metros. The money dried up, and the school district had to take its eye off the ball.

A new superintendent, reformer Dwight Jones, came into the district in 2010 and had a different view of empowerment and local school autonomy. In Jones’ view, empowerment was a program to be studied and school autonomy had to be earned. Over time, the program expanded but changed significantly. More schools had a degree of budget autonomy, but the formalized empowerment school program ended.

When the current CCSD superintendent, Pat Skorkowsky, took over in 2013, he inherited a school system where about a third of the schools had some significant budget autonomy. Skorkowsky was keen to expand this autonomy, and by 2015, half of all schools operated using “flexible budgets” where principals could manipulate a significant portion of their budgets to pursue unique strategies for student achievement. Even though Skorkowsky did work to expand autonomy, many principals and teacher leaders had fond memories of their previous budget autonomy under the empowerment program. And thus, the cycle of policymaking started again. A political imperative came forward to give local schools autonomy, and the experts were brought in again: Eric Nadelstern, Bill Ouchi, and Mike Strembitsky.

At this point, I should say this: the point of this is not to give you a history of school empowerment and local school autonomy efforts in Nevada. It’s to show just how much the politics and policy around a reform can change, evolve, and repeat itself over a period of years. It’s also to show how persistence pays off. In ten years, CCSD has gone from piloting a limited form of local school empowerment to instituting a broad form of local school autonomy based on Strembitsky’s original model. It took ten years for the policy of local school autonomy to move forward in a broad fashion—but it did move forward—because of the persistent efforts of advocates and school leaders. Over time, this reform will change and adapt to district conditions. In ten years, it will look different than it does today—but that’s sort of the point of local school autonomy.

Mike Vannozzi

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.