Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Social Studies teacher Josh Reinhart works with fifth grader Brody Dayton at the Soldier Hollow Charter School in Midway on Thursday, September 15, 2011. Soldier Hollow Charter School received a prestigious national award, the 2011 National Blue Ribbon School. Seated next to Dayton is Claire Keiffer and Tally Lagano.
We cannot continue to deceive ourselves that investing more funds into the same system will produce significantly better results. It is time to rethink how we educate.

We are pleased to see Utah's state budgetary discussion turning first to education. Education must be a budgetary and cultural priority. Although Utah's thriving population continues to put logistical and budgetary pressure on classrooms, the state's moral and economic future depends upon training the hearts and minds of its children to the highest possible standard.

We worry that Utah's current educational system and culture tend to minimize serious educational achievement, devalue good teachers as professionals and ignore the adaptations needed to address the state's changing demographics.

But we worry equally that too many decision makers believe that prioritizing education simply means spending more money on the current educational framework. Many seem to suggest that every additional dollar spent on education is, by definition, a good thing.

There are some towering peaks of innovative excellence throughout the current system. Utah, however, largely supports an educational system designed to meet the needs of the last century.

The educational system that will ultimately provide the talent for globally-competitive enterprises in the 21st century will consistently train students who possess world class ability in moral reasoning, critical thinking, mathematical analysis and linguistic skill.

But currently, Utah's educational results trail those of peer states in reading, math and science. Utah can never hope to be globally competitive with such results, especially when one considers that U.S. students, when compared to students in other developed nations, are merely average in reading and science and well below average in math.

Utah's families, business leaders and educators all want better student achievement. But the current governance and incentives give well-intentioned, hard working Utahns the average results that any subsidized, bureaucratic monopoly is capable of providing. Unless Utahns choose to allow competitive disruption of this massive but aging monopoly that we call public education, we cannot expect anything dramatically different than our current mediocre results.

As legislators begin to consider how to allocate increased but still scarce dollars to education, we would urge that the principles of choice and accountability guide their thinking for how Utah fulfills its constitutional responsibility to provide free, non-sectarian education to the children of the state.

Parents should, through meaningful choice, have the right to send their children to a school free from physical and moral harm. And parents should, through meaningful choice, have the right to send their children to a school that meets basic educational objectives. Accordingly, parents need the means to transparently assess finances, methods and results so that they can meaningfully exercise that choice.

In the late 1980s, New Zealand, a small nation of a little more than 4 million, embarked on a fundamental reform of its primary and secondary schools based on choice and accountability. Instead of tinkering on the margins with an unresponsive national bureaucracy that delivered poor results, New Zealand — in one unified bold move — turned every school in the nation over to a local board of trustees, gave every parent the right to send their child to the school of their choice, and allowed centrally-provided per capita funding to follow the enrollment choice of the family.

The results speak for themselves. Although there was actually little disruption in enrollment patterns, there was a tremendous increase in the sense of competition between schools and the sense of ownership by parents. Under hyper-local governance, more dollars went to teaching. According to Maurice McTigue at George Mason University, "Since reforms were implemented, some 67 cents of each education dollar is spent in the classroom, which is more than double the previous amount. Parents play the dominant role in the educational choices for their children. Learning has improved, and classroom size is down."

Some bemoan that a few schools failed under New Zealand's model of accountability and choice. We, however, consider the elimination of schools that are not meeting student needs to be a benefit, not a problem. The most recent results from the Program for International Student Assessment place New Zealand seventh in the world for reading, math and science. The United States trails at number 25.

If the abilities of Utah's children are to be appreciated and valued in the competitive global economy of the 21st century, we cannot continue to deceive ourselves that investing more funds into the same system will produce significantly better results. It is time to rethink how we educate. New Zealand's precise methods may not be appropriate, but empowering families with greater choice and burdening schools with greater accountability are the foundational principles for positive change.