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John Florez: Education system needs big medicine

Published: Saturday, Jan. 19 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

JoDeanna Warburton, Taylorsville Elementary School Safety Patrol Captain, signs as a witness before Gov. Gary R. Herbert signs HB 2, minimum school program and public education budget amendments, at Taylorsville Elementary School in on March 29, 2011. As state Sen. Stuart Reid has pointed out, education consumes 60 percent of the state's budget; yet, the governor has no control over education.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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As my late friend, Judge Frank Wilkins used to say, "That calls for big medicine."

And that's what public education needs today. It is one of the most important institutions needed to compete in the global economy; yet, we have failed to support our elected leaders in making the necessary changes for our students to succeed in the world marketplace.

Today, we are living in an epoch period of world change driven by globalization, technology, demographics and the Internet. The educational institutions that were designed for the agrarian and industrial eras are now obsolete and unable to respond to today's constantly changing environment. Yet we have leaders who have not taken the time to understand that our world has changed dramatically and that our institutions need to respond to changing circumstances.

"That human institutions require periodic redesign, if only because of their tendency to decay, is not a minor fact about them, nor easily understood. Taken the span of history, there is no more important lesson to be learned ... no people have seriously attempted to take into account the aging of institutions and to provide for their continuous renewal. Why should we not be the first to do so?" — John W. Gardner.

Lawmakers keep making minor changes to education that have only created a bloated and outdated bureaucracy, rendering it ineffective. The problem with education is its organizational structure, and it demands structural solutions. It's inefficient, costly and unable to deliver the high performance workforce needed for today's economy.

Public education has multiple layers — legislative committees, a state school board and local school districts, where everyone and no one is responsible and accountable for what the system is supposed to produce. Who is responsible? The governor, legislators, school boards? Each body has insulated itself from criticism with large memberships so no one member can be blamed for failures.

As state Sen. Stuart Reid has pointed out, education consumes 60 percent of the state's budget; yet, the governor has no control over education. Sen. Reid's SJR9 resolution to make the governor responsible for the "general control and supervision" over public education is timely in developing accountability in the system.

It's a good start; however, to downsize the system, eliminate the needless bureaucratic layers and make it more efficient, lawmakers ought to make the following changes adapted from the Skills Commission report (www.skillscommission.org ):

Change the state board to five members appointed by the governor.

Limit its role to setting academic standards, teacher development, establishing performance contracts for school districts and monitoring for outcomes.

Have the state contract with school districts, write performance contracts for each district, monitor their operations and cancel programs for non-performance.

Base state funding on a pupil-weighted formula.

This will allow the governor to make education an integral part of his economic and overall goals for the state and allow local school districts flexibility in managing their districts, while holding them accountable for established state outcomes in education. This eliminates the current diffusion of responsibility and makes local accountability a reality.

This session, legislators have the opportunity to think big and downsize public education in order to prepare students to meet the demands of the global economy. No more tinkering that only fattens the bureaucracy. Real change calls for "big medicine."

A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education. Email him at jdflorez@comcast.net.

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