In Jersey, on Election Day, they'd give folks a few bucks to get out the vote. They called it street money; in Utah, they might call it "performance pay" for school employees. Call it what you will, just don't call it a thoughtful way to improve education for our children.

During the waning hours of the last legislative session, some lawmakers hurriedly came up with a one-time $20 million giveaway to education entities to provide performance-based compensation, SB182, but with no clear thought as to how that might improve education. It just may be another one of those good intentions with bad consequences. One of the good results of this legislative fire drill is it shows a fundamental problem with our public education system — a governance and structural problem.

Legislators are responsible for assuring our government is meeting the state's needs and to renew public policies to keep pace with change, especially in education. However, ours seem content to make patchwork fixes rather than provide the vision and leadership necessary to prepare students for a fast-changing world. Our public education system is bogged down with a layer of bureaucratic speed bumps that are designed to assure things get done right, rather than doing the right thing. It includes multiple layers of bureaucracies that make it impossible to hold one entity or individual accountable; this includes the numerous legislative committees that duplicate oversight responsibility on the same issue. Adding to the bureaucratic speed bumps is the practice of lawmakers resisting writing legislative intent language — that is, why the legislation is important and what are the outcomes. What it now does is fatten government and force bureaucrats to guess intent and to write more regulations requiring those at the bottom of the food chain to follow. In public education, it's the teachers that are burdened with the pile of regulations — then we wonder why teachers are jumping ship.

The Legislature approved the $20 million for performance pay for educators, even though they have been studying merit pay for certified teachers. However, the language in SB182 did not specify teachers, rather "employees." Rep. Steve Urquhart seemed enthusiastic over the bill: "This is one of the loosest appropriations I've ever seen: 'Figure out how you're going to spend the money, let us know what you're doing, let us know how it went ..."' However, it was then handed off to the next and largest bureaucratic speed bump, the State Board of Education, which was then mandated to approve the plans. That made the state board nervous to think it had to take on responsibility for approving the school districts' and charter schools' plans even though the Legislature seemed to delegate a simple auditing function to the board. This reflects a culture of mistrust between the Legislature and the state board, with the losers being our students.

Legislators can tinker with the system with minor changes, yet the bottom line is the need to have a system that prepares students to become constant learners in today's changing world. That requires lawmakers have the will to first fix the system's structural problems. It requires having teachers who come to their classrooms with the passion that led them to their profession — to challenge and teach students the love of learning; teachers who can cultivate the natural instincts all children are born with: curiosity, imagination, creativity and the ability to dream — all qualities needed to succeed in today's world. And it's not just about pay; it requires giving teachers the trust, freedom and dignity of being treated as professionals.

Until parents, taxpayers and community leaders elect lawmakers who have the political will to articulate a vision and redesign our outdated system, and hold them accountable to do so, our children will be left behind — no matter how much money is thrown into quick-fix programs.


A Utah native, John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations; been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch; served on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards; and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and as a member of the commission on Hispanic education. E-mail: [email protected]