Laura Seitz, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Summarizing his view of the state of public education in Utah, Superintendent Martell Menlove said the school system is "amazingly succesful but with ever-present needs for improvement."
Menlove's remarks came during the annual State of Education Address, held Tuesday at M. Lynn Bennion Elementary School.
The state superintendent remarked that educators should be proud of the return on investment schools deliver to Utah's taxpayers, and he added that Utah's public schools are among the most effective and efficient in the world.
"I believe, personally, that we have a tremendous public education system," Menlove said. "We accomplish more with the limited resources we have than anyone I know of."
He referenced several indicators that show Utah students competing with or leading their peers around the country.
Utah's ACT scores are the highest in the nation when compared with states with 100 percent participation; the state's most recent scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress show Utah making significant gains at shrinking the achievement gap in reading; and data from the College Board, which administers Advanced Placement tests, show Utah students taking and passing AP exams at rates above the national average.
"But all is not well. All is not perfect," Menlove said. "There are things we need to continue to address."
Menlove listed a number of issues that "keep him up at night," including the state's adoption of a new computer adaptive testing system, the ability of schools to find and employ quality teachers in every classroom, and the safety of students in light of recent tragedies at schools nationwide.
On the issue of safety, he said a review of school practices was recently completed, which found the majority of schools doing what is asked of them. But the question now, he said, is whether those requirements are sufficient.
Menlove also spoke of the need for greater literacy and numeracy, helping each student be better prepared for college and careers, as well as improving the state's graduation rate, which is particularly low among minority students.
"That (graduation) rate is something that causes me some concern," he said. "It's an area where we can and must do better, and hopefully we can provide the leadership to cause that to happen."
Menlove bookended his remarks with comments about the American Civil War in recognition of the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.
"As Lincoln eloquently said 150 years ago, the great task is remaining before us, and even tonight the task remains before each of us," he said, "the task to assure that the opportunity and privileges that we have benefited from because of public education are offered to our children and grandchildren for generations to come."
Tuesday's event was Menlove's first State of Education address after replacing former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Larry Shumway, who retired earlier this year. Menlove previously served as Shumway's deputy state superintendent.
Last year's address focused on the need for lawmakers to reinvest in education. Shumway said that years of expecting schools to "do more with less" had stood in the way of educational progress.
"We cannot have the best school system in the country and be the lowest in the country in funding," Shumway said at the time. "We can't be first if we're always last."
Lawmakers were able to meet the top funding priorities of both public and higher education during the most recent legislative session and increased the education budget by roughly $150 million, the largest increase in several years.
In September, Gov. Gary Herbert announced that Utah ended the 2013 fiscal year with a revenue surplus of $242 million, all of which was expected to be allocated toward the state's education budget and Education Rainy Day Fund.
But the state is also working toward a goal of having two-thirds of adult Utahns holding a postsecondary degree or certificate by 2020, which is expected to require extensive capital investments.
Last week, the Utah System of Higher Education released a report stating that an annual tax revenue increase of 11 percent would be needed for colleges and universities to meet the so-called "66 by 2020" goal, as well as increases in tuition costs and efficiency.
Those increases would be independent of the resources needed at the elementary and secondary level to better prepare students in grades K-12 for continued education and training in relation to the 66 percent goal.
On Tuesday, Menlove applauded the governor for his leadership in pushing the state toward greater education outcomes and degree attainment. But he also acknowledged the challenges facing public schools, particularly the funding and staffing of classrooms for an ever-growing student body.
Roughly $70 million is required to simply maintain current funding levels in light of the 12,000 new students expected to enter Utah schools next year, Menlove said. He also said that between 2,000 and 3,000 new teachers are required each year as a result of both growing student enrollment and the high rate of educators who leave the profession.
Introducing Menlove at Tuesday's event, State Board of Education Chairwoman Debra Roberts expressed her thanks to the state's teachers, as well as the parents, business leaders, community members and lawmakers who work to support local schools.
"The need for support for public education grows ever more critical as we face both the opportunities and the challenges of educating the state’s children," Roberts said.
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