Jay Evensen: Money alone won't make schools better

Published: Sunday, Sept. 22 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Years ago, I collected old letters to the editor for an historical weekly feature. It didn't take me long before I felt perfectly at home in the past.

Here's an example of what I mean: A Mrs. Alfred I. Biorge wrote a sarcastic letter about public school teachers and their "current demands for money … money … and more money." She had little love for "expensive, ornate buildings (that) are sepulchering, in hollow mockery, the art of teaching — greatest of all professions."

She wrote that in 1963, inspired by the Utah Education Association's demand for higher salaries.

Back in 2000, I wrote that it seemed to me the letter could have been written yesterday. It still feels that way in 2013, but it may not 10 years from now, whether we like it or not.

If Utah is serious about reaching the goal of having 66 percent of its people in possession of a higher degree or certificate by 2020, as well as increasing graduation rates and scores in math and reading, as adopted last year by lawmakers, it will need to begin thinking radically.

The digital revolution may bring such change regardless of what anyone in power does — the way it already has in newspaper publishing, photography and several other industries, and the way it is about to at colleges and universities. But it makes sense to direct it proactively in ways that reflect community values and collective goals for universal education.

And yet most of what I'm hearing is more of the same of what people were saying 50 years ago — give the education establishment more money and it will fix the problem.

One recent example is a bill state Sen. Pat Jones told the Deseret News she is drafting, which would remove the state income tax exemption for dependents. This $400 million revenue generator feeds the premise that people with many children in Utah are somehow not pulling their weight on public education.

It is a common perception, and it is true if viewed only within the narrow scope of public school funding. But children represent a community's future. Eventually, they provide the innovative, fresh thinking of entrepreneurs and a workforce that fuels economic development and fills tax coffers.

The parents of large families are bearing the cost of raising this future generation, as Utah Sen. Mike Lee notes elsewhere in this paper. A large family eventually contributes more to the state than the cost of its tax exemptions.

More importantly, the underlying assumption is wrong. Money alone won't improve public education. A lot of studies bear this out. Most recently, State Budget Solutions, a group dedicated to transparency and reform, issued a report titled, "Throwing money at education isn't working."

The group's president, Bob Williams, wrote for the Huffington Post, "Despite pumping billions of dollars into public schools for more than 40 years, the most recent data show a public education system that cannot turn money alone into positive results."

So what is the solution? There are many possibilities. To be fair to Pat Jones, her bill also includes some ideas that are long overdue. She would take 10 percent of the new money generated and distribute it evenly across all school districts, finally giving poor rural schools a bit of a boost they can't get from their own meager tax base. She also would put school districts in charge of distributing the new funds.

These are things that ought to be done on a much larger scale.

I would drive farther down the radical road, abolishing school districts and making all schools write contracts to be monitored by a state board. Instruction and learning, meanwhile, would have to keep pace with a young generation steeped in technology and eager to tap a world of knowledge that is a mouse-click away.

I readily admit to not being an expert, other than having put five children through public schools. But this is the flavor of the radical ideas the state must entertain if it wants to excel.

Money always will be necessary. But if it's used only to do what was done in 1963, it will fail, as Mrs. Biorge knew way back then.

Jay Evensen is associate editor of the Deseret News editorial page. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, www.jayevensen.com.

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS