Our Only Hope

Clark County School District has to start the search for a savior all over again


Wanted: Education Superman

Large county in Southwestern state seeks indefatigable professional to save troubled school district. Enjoy the challenge of changing the world overnight on limited resources? This is the position for you! Qualified individual will have degree in mind-reading and advanced training in acrobatics/martial arts, necessary for vanquishing inscrutable school board and immovable teachers union. Ideal candidate will demonstrate both transcendent detachment and deeply rooted altruism. Must care first and foremost about the future of our children, while remaining undaunted by the apparent disinterest of public officials and taxpayers.

We need a hero—or, rather, we need another hero, since Dwight Jones has turned in his shining armor and left the Clark County School District, which he was hired to rescue.

Why the superintendent really resigned will continue to be the subject of much speculation. His stated reason, to tend to his ailing mother, is suspect for a few reasons: He gave shorter notice than required by his contract, which allowed him to take extensive leaves of absence anyway. He’s moving back to Denver rather than Dallas, where his mother lives. And executives at his level don’t often quit for family reasons.

Those who doubt the official excuse have offered other explanations: Jones got bogged down in the school-district bureaucracy, discouraged by the lack of funding and public support, tired of warring with the teachers union, etc. Jones’ supporters point out that he quit; he wasn’t fired. He didn’t do anything wrong, that we know of, and the board seemed to like him.

Still, the result is the same: The knight, having confronted the dragon, turned his horse around.

Once it has processed the shock and betrayal, the district will move on to the more pressing task of finding a replacement. The public discourse on this so far has been dominated by two views: 1) We need to recruit Dwight Jones II, another highly qualified outsider, cut from the same reformist cloth, who can seamlessly step into Jones’ shoes and finish what he started; 2) We need to find a local with some skin in the game—someone who gets the Southern Nevada psyche and can work the system from within.

Think of it as Star Wars characters Han Solo versus Luke Skywalker—the former, a hired gun with top-notch skills; the latter, a determined everyman with greatness in his blood. The hired gun brings galactic worldliness to the table. He’s mercenary enough to rise above petty politics, yet good enough at heart to do the right thing. The everyman is motivated by the desire to make the world a better place for his people. What he lacks in experience, he makes up for with talent and hard work.

But the reality of what we need is more nuanced than that.

The right person for the superintendent’s job will have to subscribe to the school of thought espoused by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, which stresses accountability based on performance measurement. Otherwise, he’s likely to butt heads with Nevada Superintendent of Public Instruction James Guthrie, who wields state (and, by proxy, federal) power over the county. It’s lamentable that the choice is thus limited by ideology—and the lack of local authority—but unless the Legislature plans to change the state’s education flowchart, this is the framework within which Jones’ successor must operate.

The right person should appeal to the community the way Jones has, getting philanthropists and cultural institutions to buy into his vision. However, he also has to rally the troops during the legislative session—a task in which Jones has failed, given the timing of his departure—to make sure Southern Nevada presents a strong, coherent case from all stakeholders, including parents. Parent groups, unfortunately, were omitted in Jones’ organizational revamp, making them less available as lobbyists and testifiers (not to mention the detrimental effect this has on student performance).

But most importantly, the winning candidate has to be able to convince the public that what he’s doing is so worthwhile that people should not only back greater investment in the system, but also support whatever effort he makes to improve relations between the district and the teachers union. He must break their stalemate, so they can forge a productive partnership. Imagine a system in which feedback from the trenches actually gets up to central command and is used to improve planning and strategy.

In other words, what’s required isn’t merely a hero, but a leader. Neither impressive outside expertise nor intense personal investment is as important to us now as the ability to build consensus and act on it.

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