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Disruption in the Desert: The Founding of The Public Education Foundation

Judi Steele, President and CEO of The Public Education Foundation in Nevada will take over the guest blog this week. Before joining The Public Education Foundation, Judi was a fifth-grade teacher in New York, then served as director for special education programs and services and manager of the Office of Development and Education Improvement in Clark County.

A desolate horizon, desert shrubbery, and sweltering heat were among the first things I remember from the moment I arrived in Las Vegas in 1970. There may have been a smattering of neon, but nothing that resembles the soaring skyline of today's Las Vegas Strip.

The scene was, for all intents and purposes, a blank canvas patiently awaiting the visionaries who would go on to transform its image. Despite the barren landscape, there was an energy in the air. Something was about to happen—something that would change Las Vegas forever.

A collective of entrepreneurs, many of whom would go on to be each other's competitors, were about to turn the desert town into an international tourist destination that now welcomes over 40 million visitors annually. This blog is not their story. But it is about their spirit. It is about the power of harnessing the creativity and business acumen of the private sector to innovate promising solutions for public education's most persistent challenges.

Having worked for the Clark County School District for well over 25 years, I have learned firsthand that the system did not welcome or celebrate creativity, innovation, or disruptive thinking. A culture of compliance led to turf wars that ultimately prevented the collective capacity of its human talent to collaborate on initiatives with the potential to improve student outcomes.

I was often met with the same answers when I sought to bring forward solutions: "We need everyone to agree," "There is not enough time," and more often, "There is just not enough money."

Of course, individual people in the system cared. But this was larger than any one person. It was a bureaucracy that, because of the rapid growth and diversification of the southern Nevada population, had to focus on sustaining rather than innovating and iterating.

Having served in the district for many years, I learned that leaders would allow an idea to fizzle out because of inertia—an idea at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. I often was that "outside force," seeking to move ideas that others viewed as disruptive.

I decided to take a leave of absence and launch a consulting business. That's when I learned the other side of inertia in the private sector—an idea in motion could accelerate with passion and perseverance.

What if, I thought, we could leverage the resources, including the intellectual capital, of the private sector to eliminate bureaucratic excuses? What if, in the business of education, we engaged the visionaries who transformed a barren desert into an internationally recognized tourist destination? I joined a coalition of civic and community leaders: land developer Ernest A. Becker Jr., political leader Dr. Lois Tarkanian, national parent advocate Ann Lynch, community leader Karen S. Galatz, and former Nevada Governor Grant Sawyer. Together, we established The Public Education Foundation.

The Foundation would exist as a space for ideas to gain velocity. If there was an innovative idea that had the potential to help students achieve greater levels of success, we would work to identify an investor to provide the venture capital required to make the idea a reality.

The Foundation would exist as a think tank where disruptors and visionaries could brainstorm, innovate, and experiment. Our campus would be a hub for honest, critical, courageous conversations. We would develop concepts, incubate projects, and repeat. We would broker relationships between the public and private sectors to enhance the community's capacity to deliver results for students.

Years later, the next step in our journey would be learning how to support transformative leaders in the system who had an entrepreneurial spark that needed just a touch of inspiration to turn energy into meaningful action. The Leadership Institute of Nevada's Executive Leadership Academy would be born. And it would build the capacity of talent within the system and amplify it to transform the system from the inside out.

Judi Steele

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