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How school choice can fix the leadership problem in traditional public schools

Orrin J. H. Johnson
Orrin J. H. Johnson
Opinion
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School Choice Rally

Another month, another ridiculous embarrassment for the Washoe County School District. This time, former Hug High School Assistant Principal Trina Olsen was reinstated after having been fired in July of 2018, along with all of her back pay.

As reported by This is Reno’s Bob Conrad, an arbitrator made specific findings that almost all of the reasons the school district gave for firing Olsen were either demonstrably false or unproven. The arbitrator also found that the district had violated state law in the termination and that the district had been “arbitrary and capricious” and even “retaliatory” in its conduct.

Remarkably, Olsen has been publicly outspoken about the ordeal, even after the District tried to have her sign a non-disclosure agreement. (She refused.) Good for her. Citizens have a right to know when one of their most important institutions is in bad shape, and voters have a right to know when the school board is ignoring problems.

Olsen reached out to me as well and while my contempt for WCSD is well known, I’ve seen enough employer/employee disputes like this not to trust the complaints of any disgruntled employee on their face. I also recognize the dangers of confirmation bias. But I was able to obtain a copy of the arbitrator Andrea Dooley’s “Decision and Award” document (I wouldn’t have written this piece without it), which contains her findings of facts and conclusions of law as they applied in this situation. In reading it, the mind is boggled at the many layers of dysfunctional leadership at Hug High. (And the many layers in and of themselves are mind-boggling – how many vice/assistant/dean/associate/junior/apprentice/padawan principals does one school need?)

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This is hardly the only high-profile legal ordeal for the District – another lawsuit is pending in federal court regarding the termination of former Special Education Director Jenny Hunt, alleging discrimination, bullying, and improper retaliation.

Who would want to work in this dysfunctional environment? When high level managers and leaders feel the need to take the extraordinary step of suing each other, and the highest levels of leadership are found in court to have broken the law and ended careers based on untrue allegations, who would apply in the first place? Who would stay, frankly?

Is it any wonder that teacher morale in WCSD (along with their collective opinion of their employer) is so abysmally low?

The problem for teachers is that they have a very specialized career track. The more solid the public school monopoly, the less opportunity they have for a “take this job and shove it” moment, at least not without completely retraining themselves or re-imagining their planned career trajectory. (Although in this, I think teachers sell themselves short – the opportunities for smart people with a little grit are endless, and plenty of people, including Yours Truly, have made successful midlife career changes.)

If teachers unions really want to show that they’re worth anything other than being an ATM for Democrats, maybe they should spend less time at candidate fundraisers and more time trying to actually make working conditions better for the front-line educators. At what point do teachers stop paying union dues to the people who ought to be empowering them and fighting the pointless administrative burdens and classroom micromanaging that is making them all so unhappy?

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Once again, this is a problem that school choice options can solve in a big hurry. More school options means more employment opportunities for teachers, which means they can take their talent elsewhere.

“But that hurts the kids left at public schools!” my short-sighted government-monopoly-loving friends say. Maybe so, in the very short term. But even really crappy bosses realize that when their employees start walking out the door in significant numbers, it’s time to make some changes. If nothing else, said crappy bosses will make a change because they don’t want to be fired by their bosses for literally decimating the workforce with poor leadership and management.

Many of those people, like Gov. Steve Sisolak last week, also love to say, “But if only all that school choice money got pumped back into the traditional public schools, everything would be awesome again!” Sisolak, based on that logic, has indicated he would not renew the paltry $20 million for Opportunity Scholarships that are helping so many low income children in this state get a better education than their compulsory public school could have given them, and Education Savings Accounts are, of course, dead on arrival.

There are just shy of 500,000 public school students in Nevada, so $20 million comes out to $40 per kid. How exactly is that going to turn the tide of our low-ranked schools? You could make it $200 million and you still aren’t going to suddenly turn WCSD Superintendent Traci Davis into a competent manager or leader. Forty dollars a child won’t fix the appalling leadership failures that clearly pervade Hug High, but a significant number of families publicly walking out the door and taking their per-pupil funding with them just might give those administrators a little religion on treating their staff a lot better.  

In providing a little competition to spur other humans toward innovation and improvement, school choice actually benefits public education as a whole and throughout an entire community.

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School choice opponents don’t seem to understand that money alone can’t buy good leadership. (If it could, the obscenely over-paid Traci Davis would be frickin’ General Patton.) Monopolies create single points of failure. Additionally, education should not be one-size-fits-all. Trying to force every child through an identical curriculum is actively harmful to many of them. And letting teachers go on feeling unvalued while unable to escape isn’t exactly a recipe for academic excellence, either.

If we as taxpayers want to waste less of our time and money on bad managers who take for granted (and use and abuse) their best educators because they can, we must demand more investment into a wider array of public school options than we have in the past, not restrict choices for the families and kids who deserve them.

Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is an attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at [email protected]

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