The Bush administration launched last week a crusade to improve education by urging states to "break the mold" for traditional schools and teaching.
That might help a drive launched last month by Utah's members of Congress urging the federal government to break a mold of its own - the one for education funding formulas that have given far less money per student to Utah than any other state.They give Utah $130.26 per student, far below the national average of $207.86. Alaska gets the most: $971.92, according to interim results of a study Congress ordered at the urging of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah.
Still, don't bank on much more federal money for Utah schools soon.
Staffers still figure the earliest that funding formula changes will likely occur is 1993, when funding-formula laws are scheduled for regular reauthorization. And Bush's new strategy won't pump much money into state schools either.
Education Secretary Lamar Alexander stressed that latter point last week in a press conference with Washington reporters who work for regional newspapers. "It won't help them (local schools) if the help anyone might be looking for is bucket loads of money coming from Washington."
He added, "It's not a program. It's a strategy. It's a framework. It's a way that the president can help lend the prestige of his office to an effort that is principally directed by governors, legislators and mayors, school board members and in the end rests in the classroom and around the dinner table. . . .
"We're talking about breaking the mold, starting over community by community, asking the question, `What would it take to create the best school in the world for these 400 students in Memphis or Newton or Ft. Lauderdale (or Salt Lake or Provo, for that matter)?' And then starting from scratch and doing that."
Bush's strategy includes a relatively small $700 million in federal money to "jump-start" the process, so Alexander said local schools must mostly depend on their own finances.
But in the new atmosphere where education is getting more attention in Washington, staff for Utah's members of Congress report their proposal for reworking funding formulas is attracting much attention from other states that also think it is unfair. "A lot of them felt the same, but never did anything about it," one aide said.
Reasons the Utah delegation says funding formulas are unfair include that the states that pay the most local money per pupil also receive the most federal money per student. Utah provides the least local money per pupil of any state - but that's not because residents are skimping on taxes.
Utahns pay relatively high taxes for education, but the state's large proportion of children makes it the youngest state in the country. Utah also has the highest birthrate in the nation. No other state has fewer taxpaying adults supporting the education of more children.
Another problem for Utah is formulas are based in part on U.S. Census figures for children living in poverty. Such data are always 2 to 12 years old. That hurts states like Utah with rapidly growing populations of children.
The delegation has proposed various changes to solve such problems, which would give Utah 21 percent more per student - or $3.73 million more per year.
The proposals would increase funding to 24 states but decrease it for 23 others while five would remain unchanged. So a long fight is expected - with the delegation planning to use time until the 1993 reauthorization of funding formulas to educate and line up its allies.
"We don't have any illusions. This is going to be a tough, hard battle," Hatch said recently. "But we're laying down our marker now."
Work with the administration, at least, should be easier now. It logically can't ask states to break their longtime educational molds without itself being willing to re-examine breaking its mold for funding formulas that Utahns say are unfair.