Political leaders in a modern world make decisions how to spend public monies — our taxes — in furtherance of public goals. One example: We promote the welfare of our citizens by way of investing in education.
It’s difficult to measure the efficacy of an investment in education. Do we compare the dollars we spend against monies spent by other educational systems? Should we track testing results to measure effectiveness? And do these metrics correlate whereby more investment equals better outcomes, or all of the above?
One key challenge to measuring an investment in education is that it’s difficult to capture long-term impacts. How can political leaders who must make yearly budgeting decisions know that the investment they make today is sound, when the long-term benefits are unknowable? Or how do we know today whether a particular initiative promotes educated, engaged and taxpaying citizens 10 or 20 years in the future?
I’ve been lucky to personally witness a successful education initiative that at least, anecdotally, supports investment in education initiatives that target underserved communities, including those of color.
In the mid-1980s, Layton, Utah, was a small — around 20,000 people — bedroom community adjacent to Hill Air Force Base, Davis County’s largest employer. Layton was diverse, drawing much of its population from workers and airmen from around the country who worked at the base.
Herman Hooten (deceased), an untiring community advocate, administrated the Minority Medical Enrichment Program, a University of Utah initiative that brought promising high school students of color to the university for several months over summer break (My brother Dominic attended the program). The program introduced students — most of whom were first-generation college students — to a university atmosphere, to fellow students who were similar to them and to academic life, with a streamlined series of college courses.
We might think of promising students as soil, rich and untilled. The students of the little town called Layton proved productive ground for planting the seeds of success.
One student, Felina Ortiz (then Felina Mestas), recently received her doctorate of nursing practice. A practicing nurse/midwife who also teaches in a nurse/midwife program at the University of New Mexico, Ortiz was asked about the impact of the program on her success. She speaks frankly: “I never even thought about going to college. No one had ever talked to me about it before.”
Another student, Tristan Villalobos, who holds a master's degree in public administration, echoes this idea: “The program helped me to get my ‘foot in the door’ exposing me to opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Ortiz thinks the program succeeded because it introduced her to professionals of color who had been to college. This helped her believe she could achieve this, too. She also met students from backgrounds similar to hers who helped form a positive peer group. And finally, crucially, she learned to navigate the academic world: learning study skills that helped her be a good student and about resources available to help her succeed.
Can we judge if an investment made 25 years ago succeeded? In addition to Ortiz and Villalobos, here are known results of the kids from Layton: Ara Bravo, B.S. (computer science); Noel Bravo, master's (public policy); Jose Ortiz (Felina Ortiz’s husband), a respiratory therapist/Air-Med paramedic; Dominic Sisneros, B.S. (electrical engineering).
It seems that as taxpayers and citizens, we’re lucky that Hooten (and recruiter Rosemary Washington) visited Layton. The costs were minimal; we might imagine less than the taxes paid by one of the program’s graduates in a single year.
By the way, while the program targeted communities of color, it worked because it helped students unfamiliar with higher education who happened to be persons of color.
Parents uniformly believe that an investment in their child’s education is worthwhile. No less is true for an investment in other children.
The wonderful thing about investing in education, planting seeds of hope, is what can grow: Ortiz’s younger sisters, Amanda and Sara, received their initial degrees in nursing and social work, respectively. And let’s not forget the next generation: all three of Jose and Felina Ortiz’s children, Benito, Elena and Santiago, are successfully pursuing a college education.
Henri Sisneros is a justice system leader and Salt Lake City defense attorney who has served as both a city and federal prosecutor before practicing 11 years as a federal defender. Contact him at [email protected].