In our opinion: What Utah families need to know throughout the legislative session

Published: Sunday, Jan. 27 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

Utah State Capitol before Governor Gary R. Herbert delivers his 2012 State of the State address Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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Over the past few months the Deseret News has been preparing to cover this year's session of the Utah Legislature by identifying issues that matter to Utah's families. We have met with national, state and local leaders. We have visited with policy experts. But most helpful to us have been a series of civic journalism panels where selected members of the public, many of them in their capacity as mothers and fathers, expressed to us what weighed heavily on their minds.

Through this process of asking and listening we have identified five areas of concern that we will focus on throughout the legislative session: how well prepared our young children are for school; how well prepared our older children are for college and career; how vibrant is our economy; what kind of access to health care do Utah families enjoy; and how might we break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

In today's Deseret News you can see what kinds of legislation and policies are being contemplated to deal with these areas of concern. What might encourage you as much as it did us when these pieces were reported is the seriousness of purpose demonstrated by our lawmakers. As citizen legislators they sacrifice significant time, not just during the formal session, but all year long, apprising themselves of problems and educating themselves on potential solutions. We are generally pleased to see data-driven analysis and significant collaboration by our elected representatives in each of these areas of concern.

Quite interesting to us, however, was that at each of our civic journalism panels, as much as Utahn's were eager for policies that met their distinct interests and concerns, they were even more eager for accurate information and better know-how regarding what we already have. So, for example, as we discussed the significant educational challenges facing the state, there was a practical recognition among many of our panelists that although increased funding was certainly a part of a response, it was not in and of itself a panacea.

What sparked significant interest and discussion in two different panels was how to better harness the natural concern and interest of parents in their children's education.

For example, most of our panelist felt that parental volunteerism was still an untapped resource in the state — not because of lack of interest or availability, but because of lack of practical knowledge about how to be a useful volunteer. On both the side of parent volunteers and the schools themselves, there seems to be gap between interest and the practical knowledge about how to organize and deploy volunteers that keeps the potential of this resource underutilized.

And the knowledge gap regarding parental involvement in education was not limited to volunteerism. Several parents expressed concern about how to appropriately engage with and supplement a child's education. They felt that with better, more accessible information and guidance that parents could be far more empowered and effective in their ability to support children as they prepared to go to school and with assignments and homework once they were in school. They felt that with better understanding of the educational process that they could more effectively seek and support needed interventions for their children within the existing school framework. Several expressed concern about the complexity and opacity they faced in making worthwhile decisions about higher education.

Consequently, we would encourage lawmakers, the state board of education and educators across the state to consider how they can leverage existing resources and programs through improved communication with the Utah's parents. Parents, almost by definition, are eager to see their children succeed. But sometimes they simply don't know how to help best or where to turn for accurate guidance and information. And good solutions-oriented journalism can play an important part in this process. More accessible and accurate information about how to make the most of existing programs could do wonders to help all Utahns better contribute to the challenges of our day. It's among the most important things Utah families need to know.

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