Utah is the state that gets the biggest bang for its educational buck. We consistently pay the least amount per student of any state in the nation, and yet our students’ test scores consistently rank average or a little above average when compared to other students across the country. That would seem like a great return on investment, but when you talk with most Utahns involved in education, they’ll tell you that we’re on the verge of an educational crisis.
The reason our students do so well with so little spent is that our wonderful, self-sacrificing teachers dedicate so much of their time, talents and energy to teaching their students, and that parents are so highly involved in their children’s education. I remember moving to Philadelphia with my family as a child just as a teacher’s strike shut down the public schools for more than a month. When we moved away four years later, the teachers were threatening to go on strike again. That kind of strike is unimaginable in Utah, because our teachers would never dream of abandoning our children in that way.
But we are loosing our teachers. They are getting burned out with over-sized classrooms and are feeling unappreciated because of their low salaries and unreasonable mandates from above. Consequently, more and more teachers are leaving the profession and fewer and fewer young people are stepping up to fill those roles. In the last few years, the Utah State Board of Education expanded the alternative route to licensure program so that any individual with any bachelor’s degree can begin teaching in our schools. While that may have been seen as a necessary step to try to address the immediate teacher shortage, it was also an incredible slap in the face to teachers who have dedicated themselves to becoming the best they can be through their initial education and then with ongoing education, professional development and training. This action says that our state doesn’t value enough what these professional educators do to make it worth their while. Why would anyone want to enter that kind of profession?
If our teacher shortage continues, high levels of parental involvement will not be enough to compensate for the loss of qualified teachers, and we will see the success of our students fall. This has a cascading effect across the state in many different areas:
- It becomes more difficult for Industry to attract the best workers to come to the state of Utah because they won’t want their children in our education system.
- Fewer of our children will be prepared for college and for the higher paying jobs that come with those degrees.
- Our economy as a whole will suffer.
For all these reasons, we must invest more in education. We must end the teacher shortage crisis and reduce class sizes down to manageable levels. The steps outlined in the Our Schools Now ballot initiative are good first steps to ending that crisis. In an effort to block that ballot initiative, the state legislature proposed an alternative compromise that will be on the ballot this November. This compromise is not a good step for the following reasons:
- It would provide less than a third of the money to education that the Our Schools Now initiative would provide.
- It would effectively increase the gasoline tax by 33%, as opposed to the Our Schools Now initiative which would increase the state sales tax and state personal income tax by less than 1/2 of 1%. The increase to the gas tax would disproportionately impact lower and middle income families that could afford it the least.
- It would be non-binding, which means the legislature could disregard it all together if they chose to.
The tax increases outlined in the Our Schools Now initiative would have a much smaller impact on poor and middle class families, and would raise three times more money. With that we could increase the amount spent per pupil by $1,000. And after we do that, Utah would finally be out of last place in per pupil spending! We would be beating Idaho by $652 and Arizona by $86. But we would still be behind Oklahoma.
But it looks like Arizona teachers are considering following the example of teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky in striking and marching on their state’s capitals to get them to invest more in education. Even with these proposed changes, Utah would still fall behind.
We need to do better. Our children deserve it. Our economy deserves. And we need a legislature that is willing to listen to the majority of people in the state who want their government to do better.