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A. Scott Anderson: Education needs a unified long-range plan

Published: Friday, Aug. 8 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Friday, Aug. 8 2014 12:37 p.m. MDT

While I’m glad Utah adequately funds transportation projects, I believe we need to significantly increase education funding. And we could learn an important lesson from transportation advocates.

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What is Utah’s greatest long-term public policy challenge? I believe it is adequately funding education so students are prepared to excel in life.

It is instructive to contrast education funding in Utah with transportation funding. Citizens and policymakers seem to agree that excellent infrastructure ensuring good mobility and efficient delivery of goods and services is crucial to maintaining a strong economy and enviable quality of life. Thus, we fund our highways and public transit systems at levels comparable to, or even higher than, most other states.

Citizens and policymakers also agree that excellent education is crucial to a strong economy, good employment opportunities and family stability. But despite vocal support for education by Utah leaders, Utah remains last in the nation in per-pupil spending.

We would never accept being dead-last in transportation spending. It would put our state at a significant competitive disadvantage. But we seem to tolerate being last in education spending, perhaps because the consequences aren’t as immediately stark and obvious as traffic jams and potholes.

While I’m glad Utah adequately funds transportation projects, I believe we need to significantly increase education funding. And we could learn an important lesson from transportation advocates.

In meetings with policymakers, transportation leaders often hold up a nicely designed document, “Utah’s Unified Transportation Plan 2011-2040.” It outlines local and statewide road, highway and public transit projects needed over the next 25 years. It tallies how much the projects will cost, how much funding is expected under existing revenue streams, and what the “gap” is or how much more needs to be raised.

The lesson is that citizens and policymakers will support increased funding for good purposes if they understand what the needs are, what funding is required, how additional money will be spent, and what outcomes and improvements can be expected. They also must feel confident that leadership and accountability are adequate.

The entire transportation community supports the Unified Plan, including local government leaders, state leaders, business leaders and public transit leaders. Everyone agrees what projects need to be built, what the costs will be, what additional money must be raised, and how the infrastructure improvements will improve mobility.

By contrast, Utah has no long-term, unified plan for education. No consensus exists on what improvements and reforms must be made, how much they will cost, how the money will be spent, what funding gap exists, and what results and outcomes can be expected.

It’s no surprise that a clear and precise plan beats a lot of hazy hopes and wishes.

Certainly, putting together a long-range, unified education plan is harder than a transportation plan. The education community is highly fractured, with numerous interest groups and a decentralized governance and leadership system where no one is really in charge. It’s hard to hold anyone accountable.

But we really need a plan. We need to be able to say, “Here is our unified education plan, supported by parents, students, teachers, the business community, school districts, the state school board, education advocates, charter schools and the governor’s office. If you fund this plan, these are the reforms and improvements that will be made, here’s how the money will be spent, here is how much it will cost, here are the performance improvements you can expect from our students, and here are some ideas to raise the money.”

Thankfully, work is underway to create this plan, led by the governor’s office, key state legislators, Prosperity 2020, Education First, and with participation by many other education organizations and interest groups.

For the sake of our school children and the future of the state, we need to support these efforts and adequately fund education in Utah.

A. Scott Anderson is CEO and president of Zions Bank.

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