Last week I had the opportunity to be in the same room with a dozen of the finest leaders, educators, advocates and volunteers Utah has to offer. We convened, at the invitation of the Deseret News, to discuss the state's pathway forward through these uncertain times. The conversation naturally settled on the need for improvements in public education and the multitude of reforms that could make material, positive impacts on educational success. I was delighted with the conversation, and I mentally rebuilt the dream public education system — a system not subject to scarce taxpayer resources (think "visions of sugar plums" but through an amateur economists' eyes).
That brief intellectual oasis faded almost immediately for me when I opened my eyes once again to the financial situation we face as a state. While we are committing more resources than ever before toward public education, we are not keeping pace with public education needs. Enrollment is surging — Utah schools expect a 30 percent increase in public education enrollment this decade alone. Recession-related costs are exploding — legacy Medicaid and pension costs, in particular, have sucked up nearly every available budget dollar over the last four years. The labor market is still weak — while Utah's unemployment rates are lower on a relative basis to other states, job uncertainty and underemployment are the reality for many Utah families.
As if the confluence of these circumstances were not enough, the looming "fiscal cliff" could strip $2 billion out of the Utah economy in 2013, increase taxes for 900,000 Utah families by an average $2,200 and blow a $500 million hole in the state budget. These are uncertain times indeed — especially when it comes to educating our children.
I returned home after the Deseret News panel to the nightly Liljenquist family routine of chores, piano practice and homework. With my wife, Brooke, out of town on an annual retreat with several of her closest girlfriends, it fell to me to "crack the whip" so to speak. I dutifully marched up to each of my school-age children and recited my standard refrain, "Do your homework."
Satisfied with my intense effort to facilitate learning in our home, I settled down on the couch to tackle the weightier matter of managing my fantasy football team for the week (I'm second place in my division with a respectable 7-6 record).
A few minutes later my wife called to give me detailed homework instructions for each child. She knew exactly what each child needed to work on, all the assignments that were due the next day and, most importantly, where each child needed a little extra attention. In particular, she made me commit to work one-on-one with our kindergartener, Joshua, for at least an hour.
I then spent the evening doing my homework. I worked with my Joshy-boy — reading with him, counting with him, holding him on my lap. He must have said, "I love you daddy" 10 times in our hour together, and I found myself kissing the top of his head just as often. An hour of homework later turned into a wrestling match with all the kids, an impromptu Christmas carol concert and an orderly transition to bedtime. I am still smiling about that evening.
Professor Robert George of Princeton once said: "The family is the original and best department of health, education and welfare." That message has hit home with me. In a tumultuous, uncertain world, with unprecedented pressures on our public and personal budgets, with unimaginable burdens placed on our teachers, we as parents can make up for much of the investment gaps in education by investing our time. We, as parents, need to do our homework.
Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and U.S. Senate candidate.