What is education about anyhow?

The State Board of Education is pondering that question as a departure point for trying to develop a system that will prepare Utah's children for "a different kind of tomorrow."The board has enlisted the help of a Strategic Planning Commission, which has struggled - to date - through five drafts of a paper that attempts to define education and the role of the public schools in achieving education's perceived objectives.

Central to the whole exercise is a "mission statement" that attempts to crystalize the essence of education's goals in Utah.

It reads: "Public education will empower each student to participate meaningfully in society as a competent, productive, caring and responsible citizen."

The statement envisions a united effort by citizens, parents, students and educators toward a system that addresses individual needs and prepares individual students for productive lives.

It leaves behind the "reformed industrial model school" that evolved to serve the needs of the industrial revolution and moves to a "student focused system."

In its purest form, it would disregard age as a criterion for advancement.

Schools would become "learning centers" in which local needs would supersede any central system and in which flexibility would allow for responding to radical social and employment changes as they emerged.

Graduation would be an individual event, with students proceeding through school on the basis of individual education plans, leaving the system upon demonstration of mastery and re-entering if needed to upgrade or refocus skills.

Sound nice?

It does, indeed, but I have to admit to some skepticism.

The scheme becomes pie in the sky given Utah's current economy and some prevailing attitudes.

For instance, try to envision a teacher in the lower grades with 35 children in her classroom - each with an individual instruction plan involving parents, student and teacher.

By the time these plans were formulated and instruction going ahead, school would be over - even given the longer hours envisioned in the strategic plan.

That's only one minor point. It's patently obvious that a student-focused system would require more teachers, more technology, more coordination among the various levels of learning, more involvement of parents - many of whom don't even show up for teacher conferences under the present system.

Most of the suggested reform, frankly, translates into money - the one component of education Utah doesn't have enough of.

If the proposed tax initiatives pass, the state education system will be struggling to stay afloat, let alone undertaking change that proposes to move in a direction that would cost more, not less.

That isn't to say it is impossible. Not to dream a little about the ideal would be a mistake. Changes on this scale come slowly, and over time Utah's system could evolve to fit the commission's mold.

But not unless there is a commitment to match the magnitude of the dream.