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STEVE SEBELIUS: Gilbert not wrong on school emergency

Republican gubernatorial candidate Joey Gilbert says he wants to issue an emergency declaration to take over the state’s schools.

But wait, hear him out.

Gilbert says he’d use the powers outlined in the Nevada Revised Statutes to fully take over the schools because of mounting violence, poor academic performance and to “eliminate the corruption, incompetence and abuse happening against our children from the radical leftists who have infiltrated our school system.”

For inspiration, Gilbert cites Gov. Steve Sisolak, whose declaration of emergency led to shuttering businesses in Nevada (including the Strip), mask mandates and limits on gatherings to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. That declaration is still in effect.

Although the law does say emergency management includes a crisis involving violence on school property, at a school activity or on a school bus, it’s not at all clear that state law gives the governor the power to entirely take over Nevada’s schools.

Gilbert says he would crack down on truants, impose traditional discipline on unruly or violent students, implement voluntary drug testing, make passing tests mandatory to graduate, impose work requirements, personally assess school administrators (and remove those found wanting), require all administrators to teach and require school board members to visit schools.

So when he says he’d take over, it’s not a metaphor.

But while Gilbert may be wrong on the law — he says he’d expect legal pushback and would be ready to fight back — he’s right about one thing: Education in Nevada is in a crisis. It is an emergency. Addressing it does require a sense of urgency that seems totally lacking.

Nevada’s schools have underperformed for years. Test scores, graduation rates, remedial college classes all prove it. And while school administrators have gotten creative about how schools are measured — sometimes it’s stars! sometimes it’s letter grades! — progress on fixing things has been much slower.

And now, violence is increasing in schools: An Eldorado High School teacher was sexually assaulted and nearly murdered by a student. Fights are common, and videos of those fights are popular online. Students and teachers have staged protests saying they have the right to feel safe in school. As if such a thing could even be debated.

Verran Tucker, a campus monitor and coach at Eldorado, told the Review-Journal’s Lorraine Longhi “our staff and student safety should be a priority. We need some urgency … just a little bit of urgency.”

How about a hell of a lot of urgency, which is just what Gilbert is suggesting, even if his overall plan may not pass legal muster.

“I believe it’s going to take bold action,” Gilbert said. “I don’t know another way to step in and do what needs to be done.”

While methods may different, we should all be able to agree on the emergency part. As Gilbert notes, failures in the schools ripple throughout the state in other ways. Students who are denied a good education have far fewer prospects in life, and some inevitably turn to crime. (Gilbert says a lack of consequences for bad behavior on campus feeds the idea that consequences for crime in the real world are few.) The lack of an educated workforce makes it much harder for the state to attract new businesses to Nevada, especially the kinds of industries that offer high-paying jobs.

And let’s not forget the basic obligations that we all have to kids to provide them a proper education so they can make a living, contribute to society, fulfill their potential and perpetuate American democracy.

If we fail in our schools, we fail our country. And Nevada is failing.

No one person — even a governor — can be expected to solve the problem. It’s hard to get parents involved in education — and often the ones who do get involved do so for the wrong reasons, focused on the wrong things. The Legislature passes plenty of laws that principals and teachers must implement. But many don’t result in measurable student improvements. School Board members spend at least as much time battling each other as they do running a multibillion-dollar organization. And while Gilbert may say schools don’t need more money, Nevada has never funded its schools the way they need to be funded.

It’s a complex, overwhelming problem with distributed responsibility, which makes accountability difficult.

It’s doubtful an emergency declaration will fix a problem that has persisted for decades. But no matter what else you say about Gilbert and his plan, he’s correct about one thing: Our schools urgently require reform. It’s an emergency that demands everyone’s attention.

Contact Steve Sebelius at SSebelius@reviewjournal.com. Follow @SteveSebelius on Twitter.

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