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Richard Davis: Despite leaders, Utah needs a comprehensive education plan

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 13 2014 6:34 a.m. MDT

Updated: Wednesday, Aug. 13 2014 6:34 a.m. MDT

A. Scott Anderson, the CEO of Zions Bank, recently wrote an op-ed on these pages advocating a comprehensive plan for Utah’s public education in the 21st century. I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Anderson’s call. Just as the state adopted and implemented a comprehensive transportation plan, so Utah needs a similar education plan that will reform education and increase currently inadequate funding.

The need is acute. Utah spends just over half the national average per pupil on education. By contrast, New York state’s per pupil spending is three times that of Utah’s. But it isn’t just the traditional high spending states that Utah lags behind. Utah’s spending is significantly below that of states notorious for low education spending, such as Oklahoma, Mississippi and Idaho.

How does Utah climb out of this hole? As Mr. Anderson suggests, the answer should come with a comprehensive education plan constructed by state government leaders, educators, parents and civic leaders. Such a plan needs to set specific goals, offer detailed steps for achieving such goals, determine a timetable and locate the funding sources necessary for education reform.

These ideas are not new. For years, many voices, including mine, have called for movement toward such a plan. Gov. Gary Herbert and the state Legislature’s Republican majority have repeatedly ignored such calls. Granted, the governor appointed an ad hoc education commission to set goals for performance. But those goals are only pipedreams unless transformed into action by a forward-looking plan to implement reforms and increase public education spending.

Unlike Mr. Anderson, I don’t have much hope that current state leaders will cooperate with citizens to create such a plan. Legislative leaders who could have led the way have failed to do so. Gov. Herbert, who should provide leadership in this area, has also performed short of expectations. Despite repeated statements, particularly during electoral campaigns, that he is an advocate of public education, his five years as governor have been characterized by continual inaction on this issue.

Why have the governor and a majority of state legislators stalled on the creation of such a plan? Simply put, the constituencies they listen to most closely — the Republican convention delegates — are opposed to increased public education funding. These opponents use the following arguments:

First, increased funding will not affect education quality. They claim it is simply throwing money at a problem. Education statistics tell a different story, however. Spending affects education quality, such as test results and graduation rates. Two years ago, National Journal compared per pupil expenditure and education system ranking and found a correlation between education quality and the amount of funding per pupil. Not surprisingly, the more a state spent on education, the higher the quality of the education system was in general.

Of course, teachers who will once again enter crowded classrooms this fall have been trying to tell state leaders this for years. They understand how increased funding would mean more teachers and more time for individual student attention. More teachers would mean better teaching and learning in areas such as writing, reading, technology instruction, etc.

The second argument used by opponents is that the problem is simply irresolvable because of the tendency for Utahns to have large families. Utah has the highest percentage of children in the nation. While the national average is 23 percent of the population, the percentage of children in Utah lies at 31 percent. That means Utah’s proportion is 50 percent higher than the national average. Yet, rather than being just 50 percent more, the national average for per pupil spending is nearly double Utah’s.

Moreover, Utahns’ median household income is significantly above the national average. Utahns are not poorer than other Americans. To the contrary, they are wealthier. Nor is it the case that Utahns are not willing to spend more on education. Multiple surveys show that Utahns rate the issue of public education as most important and would support higher taxes if devoted to education spending.

Scott Anderson is absolutely correct about forming an education plan. However, it may have to be a coalition of non-governmental groups who put an initiative on the ballot. Such a tactic should be a last resort, but given our non-responsive state government leaders, it may be our only choice.

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.

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