Why not diversify our schools?

The Clark County School District is enormous: 309,000 students as of the 2009-2010 school year, making it the fifth largest in the country; 8,000 square miles of territory, places as far flung as Mesquite and Laughlin; a budget of nearly $2 billion. So in this era of antipathy toward big government, it’s only natural to wonder whether we should break up the district into much smaller parts.

After all, that’s the way school districts were organized back in the mythical good old days to which we collectively long to return, before the state Legislature mandated that districts be consolidated along county boundaries in 1956. Smaller districts mean local control of school boards, more parental involvement, smaller classes, etc. It sounds like a remedy to what ails the giant, impersonal education machine that is the Clark County School District.

The rub? It’s inefficient. Before 1956, there were 14 school districts in Clark County. That’s seems a little excessive; it would probably make more sense to split the district up into the five service areas under which it already operates. But that means five layers of administration instead of one. School superintendents make a pretty good living.

So instead of breaking up the district, why not make every school in it an “empowerment” school? CCSD already has the framework in place: as of the 2010-11 calendar year, it will have 30 schools that essentially operate autonomously, making decisions based on what they need rather than what the district thinks they need. Empowerment schools create school empowerment teams, or SETs—school districts love their acronyms—of parents, administrators, teachers, support staff and students, who then choose the programs and materials and decide how they will assess progress. Teachers at empowerment schools are on a “pay for performance” plan, which means more money if they meet specified goals.

And it works. A 2007 UNLV study of the four empowerment schools then in place at CCSD showed that elementary students in grades 3, 4 and 5 did significantly better than their peers from traditional schools. Power to the people.

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