Last week, Utah soared to the top of Internet news searches and was the subject of late night talk shows — and not because of John Swallow or polygamy. State Sen. Aaron Osmond suggested in the Senate blog that compulsory public education be repealed. This set off a firestorm, making it time to address some education issues.
Should public education in Utah be compulsory?
Pignanelli: "Educate and inform the whole mass of the people ... the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty." — Thomas Jefferson
Sen. Osmond is well known for building unprecedented dialogue between the education community and conservative officials. But his recent blog post is a Neolithic sledgehammer that clumsily punches a hole in the wall of traditional beliefs — that could foster important discussions.
Right-wingers often sentimentalize about 19th century schoolhouses with silly longings for a "Little House on the Prairie" lifestyle. A 21st century economy and democracy demands a populace with a strong modern education. Every citizen (including permanent residents) has a right and responsibility to secure learning for his/her children. Our society must provide this opportunity while demanding compliance. America is a multicultural civilization bound by the common denominator of deep respect for constitutional principles. Therefore, education — at a school or home — must be regarded greater than a compulsory requirement (i.e. car seats) and as a fundamental value.
The national reaction to Osmond's proposition reaffirms America's commitment to mandatory education. Despite grumbles otherwise, Osmond remains a nice guy; but with the bad manners to ask uncomfortable questions. Can we better achieve compulsory education through incentives (similar to welfare reform)? How do we prevent parents from viewing schools as babysitting services and promote their participation? Those of us blessed with enlightenment must shelve the tar and feathers and engage with Osmond to address these important issues.
Webb: More than any time in history, quality education is a key to success in life. Responsible parents, with or without the force of law, will ensure their children are well educated. But irresponsible parents need both carrots and sticks to keep their children in school. Compulsory education symbolizes the value our society places on education.
Besides, families have plenty of wriggle room within the law, including home schools, charter schools, online schools and traditional public education. I'd like to see even more school choice, but certainly parents who don't like regular classrooms have other options. One way or another, young people need to be prepared for good jobs in a global, high-tech society.
Should Common Core standards be repealed?
Pignanelli: "Common Core" is a name used by the national Department of Education and most states for standard curriculum. The label carries political baggage. Consequently, I recommend the Utah Office of Education unveil the following document: "Utah-based, anti-federal, high quality education standards that can be achieved in school or at home as developed by conservative Utahns three generations removed from any Democrat family member, who despise Barack Obama and revere Glenn Beck, and will defeat communism, socialism and the New World Order." Good branding and marketing guarantees success for any endeavor.
Webb: Common Core standards were developed by state leaders to prepare young people to flourish in an ultra-competitive global marketplace. The voluntary standards illustrate that states can solve problems and don't need the federal government to interfere. States working together like a network of smart devices, using tools of technology to collaborate, is precisely how modern-day federalism should work. The federal government, operating like an obsolete, top-down old mainframe computer, doesn't need to dictate every breath we take.
Unfortunately, the federal government did stick its nose into this very good state-based effort by adopting the standards and tying grants and funding to them. That has given ammunition to the far-right, conspiracy theory crowd that claims, unfairly, that Common Core is another federal takeover of local schools.
The truth is, we need more such collaboration among states, not less, if we are ever to stop the leviathan federal government from stomping all over state and local prerogatives.
Utah has the lowest funding per student in the country. Should taxes be increased for public education?
Pignanelli: A general increase in taxes is not politically viable. However, conservatives and liberals are intrigued by a proposal offered by Sen. Pat Jones to restrict income tax deductions and have the resulting revenues allocated by every school's community council. This is a brilliant concept: enhancing parental participation, promoting financial transparency and general support for our education system.
Webb: We don't pay teachers enough to comfortably support a family, and some school districts are bursting at the seams, overflowing with Utah's greatest product — its children. So we do need more money for education, and we must pay for growth. However, Utah legislators ought to demand that structural reform and innovation accompany more money. Utah is a laggard in school choice. Many other states are dramatically more progressive than Utah in injecting market forces and competition to produce better results. Very little networking and cross-learning occurs between traditional public education and charter schools. In charter schools, we have great laboratories of innovation, best practices — and what doesn't work. Let's learn from them. I'm happy to pay more taxes for great education.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: email@example.com.