OPINION – The circus that is the state Legislature has pitched its tent for its annual 45-day engagement in Salt Lake City.
The gavel has sounded and, once again, state lawmakers are taking on the weighty needs of the people.
The Legislature convenes under the malodorous cloud that lingers from the John Swallow scandal and the sting of a recent federal ruling that dealt a blow to the state’s stance on same-sex marriage. I would think we will see some sort of kneejerk reaction to both as the session grinds on.
It is an election year, you know, and there will have to be some sort of effort to generate feel-good legislation on these issues framed in language that demands more “transparency” in government, toothless campaign reform, and, of course, a promise to fight the feds on the same-sex marriage issue to the bitter end. The latter, which, despite Utah’s best efforts, will inevitably result in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that marriage is marriage, regardless of gender and sexual orientation.
Going into this session, Gov. Gary Herbert, and a number of legislators, are proclaiming that education is the top priority.
How many times have we heard this before? Still, Utah maintains its embarrassing status as the state that spends least on per-pupil funding.
It’s not surprising, really, because the Red States are notorious for their refusal to hike taxes for any reason, whether education or health care.
Herbert says he would like to see more than half of a $200 million budget surplus go to education, particularly the cost of growth – some 10,000 new students are expected to hit our classrooms – and new programs.
But, he’s walking a thin, precarious line here.
While it is true that states with higher per-pupil funding have greater success in the classroom, it’s not because the funds are going for brick and mortar or new programs.
In fact, a recent report by The Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank, advances the idea that increases in per-pupil spending don’t automatically ensure better performance in the classroom if the money is spent on building and unproven programs.
The study, which was commissioned to address the inequities between inner-city and wealthier schools across the country, came away with a finding that should have been obvious: that the students who did the best were taught by the most-qualified teachers in smaller-classroom settings, that the level of education has little to do with new programs or flashy new buildings.
According to the report, “a growing body of research indicates that teacher expertise is one of the most important factors in determining student achievement, followed by the smaller but generally positive influences of small schools and small class sizes.”
Yet, we see school funding slip into trendy programs that may or may not remain a part of the curriculum instead of finding the best teachers and letting them teach the three R’s without frills or fanfare.
That’s not to say we don’t have talented and dedicated educators in Utah. We do, but what about the best-of-the-best who secure jobs in states where the average teacher salary is nearly twice what it is in Utah?
Let’s face it, far too many follow the money, unless they have family or other ties to the community. In not only education, but other fields, we lose a lot of our best people to states where they can be fairly compensated, which drags down the curve.
That’s why any increase the Legislature offers the state education fund should be applied to salaries. A lot of good teachers have been underpaid here for years and a lot of good teachers have snubbed Utah because, even with a slightly lower cost of living, they couldn’t take the pay cut.
Instead, the money will probably go to minimal raises, with the remainder flung here and there for a couple of building projects and some new programs that may or may not teach Johnny and Janie how to read.
In fact, this should be a nationwide effort because the “dumbing down of America” is no longer a clever line tossed out by pundits.
A report published on the Inside Higher Ed website last October shows that in a recent study of 23 countries, the U.S. ranked 16th in literacy proficiency (decoding written words and sentences and comprehending, interpreting and evaluating complex texts), 21st in numeracy proficiency (solving problems about math context presented in multiple ways), and 14th in problem solving in technology-rich environments (solving personal, civic or work problems by using a computer).
We see contrasting data, of course, that makes it seem as if we are doing well with our efforts to educate ourselves. We see increases in high school graduation rates and college diplomas, but that doesn’t automatically translate into an uptick in our collective intelligence.
It’s something educators have been concerned with for some time. In fact, a 2005 report by the National Center for Education Statistics stated that “the average literacy of college-educated Americans declined significantly from 1992 to 2003 … (and) that just 25 percent of college graduates – and only 31 percent of those with at least some graduate studies – scored high enough on the tests to be deemed ‘proficient’ from a literacy standpoint, which the government defines as ‘using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.’”
So let’s use the budget surplus to recruit educators who can not only teach, but inspire our children, who can unlock their brains and make them curious about the world, who can challenge them to think and learn.
Use that money to hire educators, not just teachers.
No bad days!
Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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