The idea of breaking up the Clark County School District has been around for decades without really going anywhere — until now.
Assembly Bill 394, which would split CCSD into five independent school precincts in time for the 2017-2018 school year, is now further through the Legislature than any other bill like it in recent memory.
Proponents of AB394 say it could mean a long-awaited turnaround for Nevada’s struggling schools, which have consistently ranked among the worst in the nation. But research on the proposal is fairly scant: Two recent analyses have come out neutral on the idea.
So what exactly do supporters hope the breakup will do?
An editorial in the Las Vegas Review-Journal last Friday supporting the bill cited a report by UNLV’s Lincy Institute as evidence that the breakup would mean an improvement in student achievement.
The Lincy Institute’s report references a study that found small school districts tend to educate students better than large ones. On the face of it, that sounds like winning scenario for Clark County School District, the fifth largest in the country. But when it comes to the impact of breaking up large districts to create smaller ones, the research simply is not conclusive.
“There’s not a lot of [research] looking at deconsolidation,” said David Damore, a UNLV political science professor and coauthor of the Lincy report. “There’s a lot of uncertainty associated with it.”
The Lincy report merely found that districts with fewer students tend to perform better on average on standardized tests than larger districts, not necessarily that deconsolidation results in better achieving districts.
The Guinn Center for Policy Priorities studied each of Gov. Brian Sandoval’s education priorities this session, and also came out neutral on the plan to break up CCSD.
“You can find one study which says theres a link … [then] you can do one more Google search which finds the exact opposite,” said Nancy Brune, executive director of the Guinn Center.
The most comparable district to CCSD to enact a similar change is the Jordan School District in Salt Lake City, which was the largest in that state until it was cut in half in 2009. Still, at around 78,000 students, that district was already considerably smaller than CCSD, which currently has nearly 320,000 students.
Critics of the plan to break up CCSD point to problems that arose following Jordan’s breakup, including massive budget decreases due to a loss of taxable property.
Both the Lincy report and a study by the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce found that the most important factors in student achievement — poverty and transience — had nothing to do with district size.
Damore, from UNLV, said deconsolidating big school districts and consolidating small ones are both popular ways to save money when funding is tight.
In fact, part of the reason the Lincy report examined the deconsolidation issue in the first place is because Nevada is nearly $2 billion under the funding level considered adequate to meet the state’s educational needs — a fact the report attributes to the state economy’s lack of diversity and narrow tax base.
“The reality is that Nevada is unlikely to fund K-12 education at the [adequate level] any time soon,” the report reads. “Thus ... policymakers should also examine reforms to the governance and organization of Nevada’s K-12 educational structures.”
A popular retort by CCSD has been that the district benefits from an economy of scale, in which operating costs are lower due to the district’s existing infrastructure.
CCSD officials say breaking up the district would create a logistical nightmare when it comes to things like zoning and transportation, but the Lincy report concluded that large districts aren't necessarily cheaper to operate than small ones.
Damore also said smaller districts could better leverage federal grant money for the state. Nevada is one of the least effective states at attracting outside education funding, according to the Lincy report.
“If you have more local control, [districts] are going to be much more creative about how they go about doing it,” Damore said.
Past research has shown that the ideal district hovers between 3,000 and 30,000 students. Anything above that than that tends to result in higher per-student costs.
Any change is an improvement
AB394, like a similar bill in the Legislature that would convert handfuls of underperforming public schools into charters, is a “nuclear option” designed to bypass a school district that many see as perennially ineffective.
But is it too much, too fast?
“Let’s stop saying we’re going to change the deck chairs on the Titanic,” said bill sponsor David Gardner, an assemblyman from Las Vegas. “Let’s actually try something.”
Brune, of the Guinn Center, said she understands the frustration with CCSD, but if the state has to prioritize which education programs to fund, a breakup should not be high on the list.
“In the grand scheme of things, tinkering with the size of the school district isn’t really going to move the ball down the field,” she said.
She said a far better predictor of low achievement in a district is large school sizes and inexperienced teachers.
Gardner thinks smaller districts will increase parental involvement in schools, which could set higher expectation and improve student performance. He says CCSD is top heavy and doesn’t do a good job listening to parent concerns.
Still, he concedes that the plan might be ineffective.
“That’s always a possibility,” said Gardner. “But it's always a possibility that we keep doing what we’ve been doing for 40 years and nothing changes.”