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There is a contagious, wicked, disease racing through public schools in Utah which is literally taking our teachers out of the classroom.

There is a contagious, wicked, disease racing through public schools in Utah which is literally taking our teachers out of the classroom. It’s not a bacterial infection. Rather, the illness is actual physical exhaustion and demoralization caused by a dangerous shortage of classroom teachers and an almost immoral diet of standardized testing. As an education reformer for 30 years in Los Angeles Unified Schools, famously the second worst school district in the country, I’ve never seen anything quite like Utah’s current education crisis.

Recently while state Legislators were wrestling with how much they might take from the state education budget to celebrate an income tax cut, 24 sixth-graders arrived at Bonneville Elementary in Salt Lake City to an empty classroom. No teacher. Again. Books and binders in hand, the 11-year old kids were directed to the library until a teacher could be arranged. This, after a parade of temporary substitutes had greeted them for two and a half months, filling in for their contracted teacher on medical leave. On this particularly disappointing day, not only was there no one to supervise the children when school began, there was no principal on campus either.

Reaching out to the Salt Lake City School District, the superintendent did not return calls or emails, and neither did her staff. Where was Superintendent Lexi Cunningham? On Capitol Hill desperately fighting for school funds at the state Legislature. School board representative Melissa Ford and two other sixth-grade teachers intervened in the mess. Somehow a retired teacher in the neighborhood was contacted and came in to help out for the day. A part-time science teacher came the next day, and another random substitute finished Friday.

Bonneville Elementary’s drama is unfortunately not unique. It has become the rule across the state. In the trendy, well-supported Harvard-Yale neighborhood of Salt Lake City where Bonneville is considered the top elementary, the teacher shortage has become something of a bell-cry for change.

What’s happening?

Outstanding, veteran teachers are bolting from the classroom for three understandable reasons: First, teaching salaries today can barely compete with other professions. Second, class sizes are overwhelming in many grades and many schools. Finally, the hallway echo of too many educators: “Teaching simply isn’t rewarding anymore.” This is “code” for tough classrooms and the brutal grind of state and federal testing. Standardized testing so profanely dominates our classrooms now that people who love children and hunger to teach literally are not permitted to do so. The pressure of “outcomes” and the boring supervision of students routinely drilling in computer silos robs pure teachers of the meaningful part of their job. This may also create a good place for less committed teachers to hide.

Don’t blame the superintendents or school boards. Don’t accuse school districts of stealing dollars out of the classrooms. School community councils aren’t being sloppy with their meager funds. Go straight to the top.

Astute legislative and budget analysts reveal that our education budgets are being robbed by transportation lobbies at the state Legislature. One of the best-kept secrets in Utah is that for the past decade, not only has the Legislature failed to make long-term investment in Utah schools, but it has bent to the agendas of powerful transportation leaders and borrowed from school budgets to support transportation projects.

Just this year, the state Legislature tried to undermine our education budget again. Fortunately, a revolt roadblocked the effort. But taxpayers? You should be vigilant.

26 comments on this story

In 2019, Utah has a billion-dollar surplus. Our economy is roaring. But over $500 million of those dollars have already been set aside to pay cash for a new prison. Why not apply those funds to our urgent school crisis and finance the new prison instead?

The Utah state Legislature’s long history of pinching public education is changing our communities and breaking trust with our kids. It begs the question: Why is a state that champions the importance of family scrimping on the schools where they send their children?