Webb: Education is clearly the defining issue of the 2008 election campaign, especially for legislative seats. Numerous candidates were inspired (or recruited) to run for office because of education vouchers and related issues. Some Republicans are taking on pro-voucher Republicans in their own party.
Many Democrats believe the education issue gives them an advantage, and they hope to make the most significant legislative gains in many years. They expect several Republican kills in swing districts.
But not so fast. Education has been the Republican Legislature's No. 1 priority for the last three years, and lawmakers have provided historic levels of funding, sacrificing other state programs. Democrats say they want yet more to reduce class sizes and raise teacher salaries. But that will require massive tax increases. Most other areas of state government, except programs with mandated increases like Medicaid and Corrections, have been cut to the bone.
What's more, most Democrats who are so-called champions of public education have only one solution: Toss more money at it. Keep doing the same old things, maintain the status quo, but just give them more money. What did someone say about the definition of insanity? We've been doing the same old things decade after decade and things are deteriorating, not improving.
Democrats point cheerfully to our very average test scores. The dirty little secret is that, given Utah's demographics, we should be doing far better. Our white, middle-class students perform far below their national peers. And minority populations are even worse, comparably.
Young people are not being trained for the jobs that exist in our high-tech, knowledge economy. College retention rates are a disaster.
I don't think Utah voters want more of the same only with higher taxes. Republicans are committed to spending as much money as possible for class-size reduction and teacher salaries. But good Republican candidates also want reform. They want to extend the school year so teachers can be paid more like other professionals. They want differential pay to get the best teachers for math and science, and incentives for excellent teachers. They want more parental involvement and more control at the school level. They want more opportunities in charter schools and innovative learning.
If you want the status quo at a higher cost vote for Democrats. If you want a system that prepares students for today's world, vote Republican.If we can't educate students properly, we might need to direct them to the profession of lobbyist. Frank needs some help. This is a job obviously requiring no advanced training and approximately the same skill set as one learns in a junior high school clique.
Pignanelli: I ask an old question: "LaVarr, what is the color of the sky in your world?" The disconnect you and some others share for reality is amazing. If education is in the trouble you describe, you can't blame Democrats the party that has been out of power in Utah for a generation. The truth is LaVarr is smarting because he and his buddies could not convince a majority of Utahns (who are Republicans) that the voucher program was in their best interest. There is a high level of frustration in Utah's public education system. Notwithstanding LaVarr's rants, it is an angst shared by Republicans, Democrats and even teachers. Indeed, many of the programs that LaVarr lists (deferential pay, charter schools, etc.) are supported by Democrats and independents. When thousands of parents (including me) attend parent-teacher conferences or a PTA function, we do so not as Republicans or Democrats. We hunger for what's in the best interests of our children. Trying to paint education reform in partisan terms is a true sign of desperation.
More than 20 years ago, the young governor of a poor state was concerned education funding was dead last and test scores were abysmal. He knew more money wasn't the only answer. The state executive and key lawmakers decided on a dramatic overhaul of the public education system. They proposed increased taxes accompanied by a tough accountability process for teachers and administrators. The changes were so drastic that normal adversaries of teacher associations and taxpayer organizations collectively opposed the measure. Politicos still talk about the meanness and emotions that accompanied this battle. But reason prevailed: Education was adequately funded while educators worked to satisfy performance requirements. Test scores increased. Taxpayers received more bang for the buck. The governor, once despised for tackling this problem, garnered praise for his insight and was vaulted onto the national political stage. In 1992, he was elected our 42nd president.
Nationally and locally, Republicans and Democrats continually demonstrate a willingness to demand accountability while enhancing compensation. Lawmakers are to be commended for directing more resources to schools. (Of course, that is where the public wants dollars spent.) The needed education system revamps to control costs while enhancing quality will require visionary leadership. While ignoring the screams of LaVarr, Utahns will demand substantive ideas from elected and appointed leaders in this and future elections.At least LaVarr appropriately distances himself from lobbyists. Success in lobbying is based upon a warm personality, good relationships and a deep understanding of the complexities of lawmaking.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and a Deseret News managing editor. E-mail: [email protected]. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as House minority leader. E-mail: [email protected]