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Educated Work Force Improves Economic Growth

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''I would fire the lunch lady,'' the woman said, lamenting how the head of her food program routinely failed to ensure all the kindergarten through fifth-grade students got their breakfast or lunch and managed the food service on a strictly timed, first-come-first-serve basis. Many children missed meals, and for some, school lunch was their only opportunity for hot food each day.

The young elementary principal's response shocked me, her answer to the question of what her first major change would be if her school were to become an Empowerment school, a type of management system, whereby principals gain greater latitude in hiring, budgeting, and curriculum choices in exchange for increased accountability for student academic achievement.

"I deal with a reality where many of my children come to school hungry or even sick; many do not have the proper warm clothing on during winter. My staff must understand that at this school, their job is about more than academic support. For many of our kids, it's about life support. We are the most consistent variable in many of these kids' lives. And if you don't get that, I don't want you in my school."

While this story isn't the norm for every school in the Clark County School District (CCSD), most people would be surprised at how it and other stories like it emerge from a school district operating within an organizational structure first created over 60 years ago, when student populations were significantly smaller, more homogeneous, and required fewer work force skills than students today face with a globalizing economy. Today, the CCSD faces burgeoning student growth, a growing diversity of its student population, two-working-parent households, falling high school graduation rates, and increased college remediation rates.

Yet, concern over a faltering public education system is dampened when economic indicators show Nevada experiencing a unique wave of economic expansion over the last 15 years. We've led the country in population and job growth, and unemployment figures have consistently been lower than the national average. One could say that today, Nevada is a great place to be. And it is.

But for how long? That is a question the business leaders who make up the Council for a Better Nevada (CBN) have asked themselves over the last two years since taking on the improvement of public education as a cornerstone of the organization's work. We seek to utilize private sector resources in education to improve the quality of life for all Nevadans. CBN understands that our recent economic accomplishments are certainly something to
herald for ourselves, yet it is essential that we seek to maintain growth and opportunity in a state that is really just beginning to grow up and ask itself, "Who do we want to be, and what do we want to look like in 20, 30, or 50 years?" There are impending policy decisions to consider in regard to roads, power, water, health care, and especially the public education infrastructure for the state.

Our first acknowledgement was that business should not confuse economic success with community prosperity. And yet, however important it is to understand the stark differences between the two ideas, they are forever intertwined within a successful or failing business climate and flourishing community. Business success can overcome weak K-12 and higher education systems for only a limited amount of time. When the gap widens too significantly, as is the growing case today in Southern Nevada, the resulting reality presents a community laden with citizens unable to fill workforce labor needs. The widened gap contributes to rising crime rates, increased dependence on costly public welfare sources, and individuals who add little to the community culture of volunteerism, philanthropy, or values that raise the quality-of-life standards for everyone.

For the private sector, the most common example of this gap is the lure of Nevada as the pro-business environment that it is, but then revealing to the out-of-state, soon-to-be transferred executives and employees that Nevada school systems are weak. Despite the favorable tax environment, many companies fail to come because of a lacking public education system. Even within the burgeoning economic climate we have all recently experienced, one must ask what has been the opportunity cost of lost businesses due to the weak education system and the cost savings lost in state resources dedicated to serving a growing, uneducated citizenry.

CBN has applauded CCSD for implementing a reorganization of how schools operate through the Empowerment model. We hope to see all CCSD schools run on this approach in the near future. Through this systemic reform, large urban centers like Houston and New York City have demonstrated significant academic gains while capturing greater spending efficiencies.

As we move forward as a state and strive to improve socially and economically, the basis for sustainability lies in reinventing our public education system to successfully navigate Nevada's 21st century complexities. This very country was founded on the belief of equal access to a sound education and advancement of the individual. Education begets numerous benefits that we as citizens and businesspeople embrace and appreciate. To ensure long-term viability and success, businesses need to play a role in shaping and maintaining a prosperous community for all of its citizens, both economically and socially.

Public education is our country's backbone of valued citizenry, economic prosperity, and a democracy that demands the participation of its people in order to function to the best interests of its nation. Public education is not just about education. It is about homeland security, healthcare, welfare, and a myriad of other issues that stem largely from an uneducated populace. Most importantly, it is about reminding us where we all came from. Our country, its economy and its values must be protected at all costs. A democracy is only as strong as its ruling generation. And whether that understanding requires an action as small as replacing the lunch lady or as large as retooling an archaic system that today is burdened with maintaining American values, strength, and equality, the responsibility lies with us to ensure that the next generation is an educated one.

About the Author

Maureen Peckman is executive director of the Council for a Better Nevada, a not-for-profit organization composed of Nevada business executives whose purpose is to impact issues of community interest toward greater improvement. She can be reached at 702-233-1155. For more information about the Council, visit
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