Some issues are so laden with emotional baggage that the search for meaningful debate can take on J.R.R. Tolkein proportions. You know there is a ring of truth somewhere, but the obstacles seem insurmountable and a tad mystical.

In the case of Referendum 1, the school voucher issue in Utah, campaign season has produced mostly smoke and distractions, like a competition among carnival barkers along the midway of a state fair. One side accuses the other of being against public education. The other side counters with accusations that the teachers' union is controlled by liberal out-of-state interests.

Each sees the other as emerging from a colonial-era witness list at a witch trial, complete with hallucinations and frothing at the mouth. One person went so far as to send out an e-mail saying the other side is "from Satan."

Readers of this column know of my support for vouchers, but I have to admit I that I know the leaders on both sides of this issue, and I honestly feel they have the interests of Utah's schoolchildren at heart. They just have different ideas as to what that means.

So why have those good intentions turned into fertilizer in the garden of good and evil?

Perhaps my good friend and fellow Deseret Morning News columnist John Florez hit on it recently when he said school reform measures "appeal to the fears and anxieties of the people, rather than appealing to the dream of what it ought to be or what it could be."

Or maybe former Tennessee senator and labor secretary William E. Brock said it best recently when he identified the biggest impediment to reform as "the attitude that we're trying very hard and already doing the best we can for our children." People get angry when they think reformers are implying they've been neglectful.

Both of these men, by the way, are voucher opponents. But they recognize that education in this nation is in need of drastic reform.

Brock visited the Deseret Morning News editorial board last week, along with other members of The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. That commission, funded by the likes of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, has issued a report that is creating a stir in some states — just not in Utah, yet.

People tout how well Utah's students do on national achievement tests. Brock says Utah kids aren't competing against other kids in the United States. Ultimately, they will compete for jobs against kids in Holland, Denmark, Sweden, China, India, Singapore and a host of other nations. And students in the United States perform dreadfully against those kids.

Not only that, developing nations such as India are producing engineers who are happy to work for $7,500 a year. Even if we succeed in matching the education levels of these Indian graduates, the report asks, "why would the world's employers pay us more than they have to pay the Indians to do their work?"

The only solution is to produce people who are competent, creative and innovative, and who can adapt quickly.

The report, available at www.skillscommission.org, recommends a radical reorganization of public education at the state level. Rather than school districts, a state board of examination would pass kids onto college when they're ready. All schools would be operated by independent contractors and would be monitored for performance. Teachers would be paid up to $110,000 a year and would be rewarded for performance.

The problem isn't that teachers today aren't working hard enough. The problem, as Brock puts it, is that we have an education system built for the industrial age, but we need one for the digital information age.

Getting there will take the united efforts of teachers unions, educators, vouchers proponents, parents and politicians — people willing to sit down to hammer out something new.

Or maybe we should tackle something a little easier first, like world peace.


Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret Morning News editorial page. E-mail: [email protected]