My view: Will more per-pupil spending help?

By David Erickson

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, May 9 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Richard Davis reminds us that Utah spends less per pupil on public education than any other state ("Utah has no excuse for short-changing education" May 1). This is old news. It's also only part of the story.

I'd like to see teachers make more money. The benefits of that are obvious. But Davis' vilification and blame of Republican legislators and their unwillingness to raise taxes in order to "adequately fund" (whatever that means) education skirts a major part of the problem, if indeed there is a problem.

Davis lists several imaginative plans to get more money out of the taxpayers (notice that the authors of all of those plans have a "D" after their name, as if they're the only ones that care about quality of education). Theirs is the standard approach: tax the so-called "rich." Since there are fewer of them, they have fewer votes.

Taking more money from the taxpayer doesn't need to be the answer. Yes, more money needs to get to the classroom. Before we ask the taxpayers to pay more, let's examine other ways to accomplish that.

The teachers union has long been considered a major impediment to improving quality of education. Its antipathy to change and insistence on protecting seniority instead of competence needs to be done away with.

The bloated education bureaucracy also shares some blame. There's a lot of money being spent at district and state education offices that could go back to the classroom. Some years ago, the Legislature provided some funds that were meant to be a one-time bonus for teachers. I'm aware of at least one district that kept those funds at the district office and gave none to the teachers.

Proof that the education establishment could get by with less exists in charter schools. They frequently out-perform district schools and get quite a bit less money per pupil to do it. They get by with much less overhead and have the flexibility to manage the education process without unions and bureaucracy getting in the way.

Utah is strangely unfriendly to charter schools. The Legislature appears to be under some pressure from the education establishment to restrict the spread of charters. Arizona has a much friendlier attitude and more lenient laws and has a thriving, rapidly expanding charter school industry.

District schools can improve. Studies have shown that district schools improve their performance when they are near a charter school. Apparently, motivation provided by competition can have a salutary effect, notably without increasing per-pupil spending. Until Utah allows a much wider spread of the proven efficiencies of charter schools, I think that those who want more money in education are getting ahead of themselves.

More money may indeed be needed, but not until we've dealt with union intransigence, bureaucratic bloat and inflexibility, and the state has a much higher percentage of charter schools.

Utah may have the lowest per-pupil spending, but it is definitely not last in the performance of its students. Money is only part of the equation; some of the best-funded school systems in the country are the worst performing. Utah must be a lot better at using its education dollar than many other states in order to get such good results with such low spending. That's the concept to build upon: We already do better with less, but we can do better yet with what we have.

David Erickson is a board member and chief financial officer of a charter school chain in Arizona.

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