What should Utah aspire to in public education? Should we aim to be in the midrange of states in education excellence? Should we be satisfied if we’re in the bottom cluster of states? Or should we seek to be the nation’s No. 1 education state?
Comparisons with other states are of no concern if we’re providing the kind of education that prepares our young people for the jobs of the future: jobs that can support a family in an era of advanced technology, globalism and the knowledge economy.
But, certainly, if Utah’s education is mediocre compared with other states and countries, our young people, especially minority and lower-income students, won’t be prepared to succeed in this ultracompetitive world.
We ought to aspire to be the nation’s No. 1 education state. Not for bragging rights, but because of the boost it would give our young people to succeed in life and the economic engine it would be to Utah’s economy to have plenty of exceptional employees earning excellent incomes.
We should aspire to be No. 1 because our children are more important than anything. We’re a family culture. We have more children, percentagewise, than any state in the country. In a period of labor shortages, our young people can be our greatest asset — or our greatest liability, if they aren’t prepared for the jobs of the future.
In an advanced economy supercharged by artificial intelligence and the internet of things, a key success differentiator for nations, states, communities, families and individuals will be top-quality education. Great education will produce winning individuals and winning states. Mediocre education will produce minimum-wage jobs.
So here’s the multimillion-dollar question for Utah: Can we achieve education greatness while spending the least amount per pupil in the country? It strains credulity to think that we can do so. Our teachers and families are good — but not that good.
Education-funding detractors say throwing more money at education won’t improve outcomes. They point to political jurisdictions, mostly big cities and certain states with high poverty rates, that spend a lot of money on education but don’t produce great results.
That argument is naïve, even ludicrous. More money would allow Utah to adopt global best practices for education, to provide more individual attention and counseling for students, to attract the best of the best to the teaching profession (and pay them like real professionals), to provide additional focus to disadvantaged students. That would improve outcomes. Those who make the argument that money doesn’t matter are either misguided or uninformed.
What if we spent the least in the nation on transportation infrastructure? Our highways would be a disaster. What if your own family income was last in the nation for your profession? Would you be able to do as well as a family earning two or three times as much? Money matters in education just like in any other sector of society.
We need to do education well not just to create more high-income earners, but to provide disadvantaged young people a chance at the American dream. That requires money. Education failings are a major reason for the growing disparity between the haves and have-nots. Wealthy families will see that their children get a good education. Education spending is most important for the category of young people who will otherwise be lost.
Why do many other states perform better than Utah? Is it because our students are dumber? Are our teachers and principals less capable and less dedicated? Are our parents less caring and committed?
No. The difference is money. Clearly. Utah spends $6,500 per student per year. Massachusetts spends over $15,000.
I’m not suggesting we raise spending so we’re in the country’s top 10. Or even the top 25. Or even the top 45.
How about we achieve the incredibly elevated status as No. 49 out of 51 (including the District of Columbia)? That means supporting the investment proposal put forth by Our Schools Now. It would boost spending by about $1,000 per pupil — still among the lowest in the nation.
But it would be enough to achieve education excellence. It would be the best investment Utah taxpayers could possibly make in their children and their state.
Lew Cramer currently serves as the CEO of CBC Advisors. Prior to CBC Advisors, he was the founding CEO and president of World Trade Center Utah. Lew also is a member of the Our Schools Now Steering Committee.