Jay Evensen: Get radical when choosing new superintendent of public instruction

Published: Thursday, June 5 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Saturday, June 7 2014 6:23 p.m. MDT

The state is in the market for a new superintendent of public instruction, and it couldn’t come at a more opportune time.

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It’s time to get serious about our homework assignment, Utah.

Check that: It’s time to get radical.

And radicalism works best when it starts at the top.

The state is in the market for a new superintendent of public instruction, and it couldn’t come at a more opportune time. Thanks to policymakers and the Legislature, we all have the assignment of helping to get 66 percent of the state’s adults with a higher degree or certificate by the year 2020.

Time is ticking, and as my mom used to warn me on those nights when I wanted to watch TV instead of working on that assignment that was due far in the future, if you wait until the last minute, there will be trouble.

And there will be trouble if the Utah State Board of Education picks a superintendent from the education establishment who lacks the drive to shake things up a bit.

The 66 percent drive started four years ago after Georgetown University published a study that estimated by 2018 Utah’s economy would provide 202,000 new jobs that require some sort of post-secondary education, bringing the total of such jobs to two-thirds the size of the state’s adult population.

The Utah State Board of Regents jumped on this with a report of its own that set the ambitious goal of filling those jobs with qualified people — by 2020, just to be safe.

Only it wasn’t really safe.

Jumping from roughly 43 in 2010 percent to 66 percent isn’t as easy as it looks, and it doesn’t even look that easy. Dave Buhler, the state’s commissioner of higher education, has said the state needs to gain 3.5 percent more degree holders per year. Remarkably, it has done well so far, but now is when the going gets tough, and the state isn’t likely to get there by doing things the way it always has in public education, no matter the progress it has made recently in graduation rates, or the baby steps it has taken in closing the achievement gap between Caucasians and minorities.

To put it in some perspective, the District of Columbia leads the nation with 55.3 percent of its people holding at least an associate’s degree, and it has the advantage of housing a growing maze of federal bureaucracies that attracts young college-educated people.

When the goal was announced, it was anticipated that 11 percent in Utah would hold certificates and 55 percent would hold a post-secondary degree. So Utah is hoping to at least tie for being the most educated of the 50 states plus D.C.

And because Utah is among the nation’s fastest-growing states, the goalpost keeps moving. As this newspaper said in an editorial in 2010, “This two-thirds enrollment growth would require registering more than twice as many students than the state expects in natural growth in the next decade.”

Still, it’s a worthy goal, but you can’t get there plodding the same path.

There are radical people out there. Jeffery Canada, the much-celebrated president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, is resigning and, presumably, available. His reforms, in one of the nation’s toughest neighborhoods, has won praise from left and right.

Michelle Rhee, who shook things up as chancellor of the dismal Washington, D.C., public school system is also out there.

They may not be interested, but it would be a good idea for the board of education to ask them for suggestions on who might be.

Without a public school system providing significantly more college students, getting to 66 percent won’t be likely.

This is usually the point at which commenters gear up to argue over per pupil funding and class sizes. Skip it. The political reality is Utah won’t provide the money education officials say they need. An estimate from the Utah Taxpayers Association in 2007 was that about $900 million in ongoing yearly funding would be needed at that time to cut classes to 15 kids.

And besides, Utah’s middle-of-the-road performance record on test scores shows those measures really don’t mean as much as some would like you to believe.

To get to the next level will require some radical thinking at the top.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, jayevensen.com.

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