SALT LAKE CITY — Superintendent of Public Instruction Larry Shumway issued a call Tuesday for Utah legislators and policymakers to reinvest in public education.
"We cannot have the best school system in the country and be the lowest in the country in funding," Shumway said during his State of Education address at Salt Lake City's Open Classroom. "We can't be first if we're always last."
Shumway said it's not necessary to outspend every state in the nation to achieve success, but he emphasized that years of economic and political demands to "do more with less" stand in the way of educational progress.
The Beehive State consistently ranks among the worst in the nation in terms of per-pupil spending, yet Utah students often outperform their national peers.
Shumway spoke at length about the successes of the Utah public school system during the "lean years" of the recession. Per-pupil spending has only recently returned to 2008 levels, he said.
He gave the examples of dual immersion programs, where Utah leads the nation, increases in Advanced Placement testing and passing rates, and the recent emphasis on the ACT that has resulted in 97 percent of Utah students taking the test as evidence of what schools have been able to achieve despite limited resources.
"Because they took the ACT, many students who may not have thought they were capable of college work find that they are," Shumway said. "Our schools in Utah are strong. We're not perfect. We have plenty of work to do, but we are building on a very strong foundation."
He also said education officials have acted in good faith to meet the requests of parents, taxpayers and government leaders who advocate for greater choice in education. Nearly 8 percent of the state's total public school students are enrolled in charter schools, he said.
With open-enrollment policies, scholarships for students with disabilities and increased online offerings, students in Utah have more options in education than ever, Shumway said.
"The choices are abundant," he said. "Now it's time for policymakers to step up and invest in public education."
Shumway also offered several recommendations as to how that investment should be demonstrated. He suggested that lawmakers commit to consistently funding growth and not reducing revenue during economically good times.
The superintendent also said it's crucial to invest in teachers — the "key to every success we have," he said — by providing funding for fair compensation and professional development and talking positively about the teaching profession.
On the subject of technology, Shumway said Utah schools have only begun to see the transformative possibility of new teaching methods. A full integration of technology in the classroom will take time and a significant amount of effort, he said, adding that software should be seen as synergistic with teachers, not as a replacement educator.
"This is not a repavement project. This is like rebuilding I-15 from Tremonton to Santaquin," Shumway said. "It's a big job."
The superintendent's remarks Tuesday also partly served as his farewell address. In September, Shumway announced he would retire from his post Jan. 1 after serving for more than three years. His deputy state superintendent, Martell Menlove, was named as his successor Monday by the State Board of Education.
During his remarks, Shumway made frequent references to the history of education in Utah, often quoting from the state's first superintendents of public instruction.
Commenting on his retirement, Shumway said he and his wife had reached the decision after a lot of consideration, and he joked that he was leaving before following in the fate of some of his predecessors.
"I warned Deputy Superintendent Menlove, two out of the first three (state) superintendents in this state died in office," he said. "I'm lucky to be getting out just in time."
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