Tough Love

An open letter to the Clark County School District’s potential interim superintendent

It’s hard to believe that it’s almost been a year since Jim Rogers’ smart-guy demeanor and rapid-fire delivery disappeared from the top office at the Nevada System of Higher Education. The multimillionaire owner of numerous TV affiliates throughout the West, Rogers, along with his wife, Beverly, have given nearly $250 million of their own money to benefit colleges and universities, including UNLV, USC and the University of Arizona.

Trained as a lawyer, Rogers is a passionate and self-righteous advocate for Nevada’s public schools, colleges and universities, and has volunteered to head the Clark County School District while the school board and community leaders seek a permanent replacement for the retiring Walt Rulffes.

To read through the 71 public memos he produced in 2008 and 2009 in support of the state’s education system is to grasp Rogers’ style. They are marked by clarity of purpose and a tough tone that occasionally ventures into the personal—a rare approach among public officials.

“When it became apparent to me that you were going to become the governor of the state, I was immediately concerned because my understanding of your policy on government funding of higher education, public health and social programs was that you would fund the lowest possible,” Rogers says in one memo to Gov. Jim Gibbons.

Rogers cited a news interview on his Las Vegas NBC affiliate, KVBC-TV, in which Gibbons said state government doesn’t have a revenue problem—it has a spending problem.

“That remark sent chills up and down my back,” Rogers wrote Gibbons, “because that made it apparent to me that you are a governor who would like to eliminate all social programs including education, health care and all related areas from financial support by the state.”

Question. Suggest. Criticize. Lobby. Publicize.

It’s a style that could serve the Clark County School District well if the wealthy septuagenarian were to take the helm of the 309,000-student district.

So in the spirit of a Rogers memo, here are several suggestions for the interim Clark County School boss:

• Experiment with open enrollment throughout the district. Clark County Commission chairman Rory Reid and others have argued for it. Let parents decide which schools they want their children to attend. Don’t limit them to neighborhood schools.

Academic success would no longer be linked to the neighborhood where you live, and the rejection of some schools for others would pressure administrators and teachers and parents at the schools left behind to make real changes.

Jim, you’ve made hundreds of millions of dollars in competitive local TV markets. Why not force schools to compete for students?

• Make every school an Empowerment School. The school district has 17 such schools in which parents and school administrators make basic operational decisions. Extend that idea to all 352 schools in the district. Engage the community. Get parents, students and taxpayers involved. Give them a sense of ownership of the buildings and make those schools true community centers.

• It’s 2010, and it’s time that every high school student has access to a computer with high-speed Wi-Fi. That would eliminate the need for most textbooks and help expose students to everything from the great works at the Louvre and the Library of Congress, to the 3-D imagery of the scientific minds at MIT and Stanford.

Cox Communications could donate the Wi-Fi. After all, it’s the exclusive cable-TV franchise operator in this region, and company executive Steve Schorr values the company’s reputation as a good corporate citizen. (There’s already an elementary school named for him.)

Meantime, MIT professor and angel investor Nicholas Negroponte is the catalyst behind a program to get free computers in the hands of million of children in Third World countries. We need a similar initiative in the Clark County School District, one that would see Apple, Microsoft, HP and other computer makers provide high school students with computers.

Jim, you helped push through a record $500 million capital campaign for higher education. It’s clear that the Clark County School District needs a similar initiative driven by grants and donations from the private sector, foundations and wealthy individuals. Call the Steves—Schorr and Jobs. You know what it takes to get people to give.

• Create incentives for students and parents. We live in a greed-driven culture that values the bottom line and for too many Americans, academic success doesn’t pencil out. Time recently asked: “Should Schools Bribe Kids? A Major New Study Reveals an Uncomfortable Truth—It Can Work If It’s Done Right.”

School districts in Dallas, Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C., offered financial incentives for student success. In Dallas and Washington, academic performance improved for about 5,000 students in 39 schools. The results were mixed in New York and Chicago.

• Speaking of Washington, D.C., follow the lead of its school superintendent, Michelle Rhee, and create a program that would see teachers voluntarily give up workplace protections that come with seniority in return for an opportunity to earn dramatic wage increases.

During the boom times, the Clark County School District hired up to 2,000 teachers annually. Many were good, but some weren’t, and now it’s virtually impossible to fire the poor performers. Instead, they are shuffled from school-to-school as district officials try to minimize the damage they do.

A “voluntary tenure” program wouldn’t eliminate the problem, but it would alter the mix while rewarding top teachers who move into administration to earn more money instead of remaining in the classroom.

• Protect music, the arts and field trips. All three are the first to go in tough budgetary times. We’ve seen the power of these “extras” with youngsters who are too shy to speak in a classroom and teens who scoff at the idea of opening a book.

Music is about math—it’s no different than the fractions many students have trouble grasping. Visual arts help students see the world in a different way. The performing arts help teach them about creativity and reaching goals.

Field trips energize, motivate, provide context and actively engage learners in a way that a classroom setting can’t. The concert series for fifth-graders at UNLV’s Artemus W. Ham Concert Hall is an excellent example. Why not extend that idea to other areas of the arts? Let’s face it Jim, you were the chief lobbyist and fundraiser for the state’s colleges and universities. Now the Clark County School District needs to tap into the address book on your BlackBerry.

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