The “news” about school funding in Utah remains perpetually dismal, as I noted in this May 2006 post. Nearly on schedule, we have the regular quarterly hand wringing about Utah’s failure to make adequate sacrifices to the gods of per-pupil-funding (see D-News, SLTrib).
As I noted nearly two years ago, there are only so many golden eggs that can be gotten from the taxpayer goose before we succeed in killing the goose. Over the last three legislative sessions, the legislature has dumped nearly $1 billion into the public education industrial complex on top of regular funding. But we’re still in dead last (51st) place in per-pupil funding. We’d only need another half billion to tie with 50th place Idaho.
A big part of the problem is demographic. The D-News article notes that “one in five Utahns are public school students compared to one in seven nationally.” Apparently Utah has been less successful than other states in getting its citizens to kill off their unborn progeny — you know, all those people that are supposed to generate enough money in the future to cover Social Security and Medicare costs for the currently living population.
But there’s another component to the funding situation. In 1995, Utah was in fifth place nationwide in amount of education funding per $1000 of personal income. By 2004 we had slipped to 27th place on that scale. We haven’t been keeping up with the Joneses. Other states have been increasing their education expenditures (with pretty lackluster results) at a much quicker pace than Utah has, while Utah has had the temerity put some money toward other pressing matters. No figures are available on where Utah currently stands on this scale after three years of unprecedented spending increases.
Comparatively speaking, Utah can boast some pretty decent returns on its educational spending, but there are some warning signs. The vast majority of our eighth graders can’t write proficiently. As might be expected, the problem is much worse among minorities and students for whom English is a second language.
While this latter issue pops up anytime there is immigration, the former issue means that the average student is underperforming. When compared with other states with a similar demographic profile, Utah’s overall student performance is the worst in the nation (see 11/5/07 post).
But let’s face reality. Utah is never going to win the per-pupil-funding race. In fact, given demographics and income levels, Utah will likely never make it out of 51st place. The folks in the education industrial complex will forever flog us for failing to properly worship the gods of per-pupil-spending. So I guess we’d just better get used to being harangued about it.
If we can simply accept this reality, we can get on with understanding that we have to innovate without having a lot more cash to do it. And for that, we may need to go back to the future. How in the world did we manage to teach students to read, write, speak, do math, and understand history back in the bad old days when we had superior educational outcomes while spending only a fraction (in real terms) of what we spend today?
Frankly, this isn’t rocket science. There are tried and proven methodologies. But we long ago scrapped them in favor of more costly modernized approaches that accrue power and money while simultaneously worsening educational outcomes (see 3/6/08 post). We know what works, but doing what works threatens ingrained power structures.
Utahns balked last November when asked to challenge those power structures. At least some folks believe that November’s voucher vote means that they have a mandate to punish those that seek to alter the current power framework (see 3/26/08 post). Apparently it’s not a good thing to threaten a caged animal.
On a related note, a friend of mine recently had a discussion with an educator that was very angry about the whole voucher thing. On top of that, the educator wondered how Utah can continue to pay teachers so poorly while simultaneously experiencing a teacher shortage. (As I noted in a 5/29/07 post, shortages exist for only certain types of teachers, but that was apparently not brought up in the discussion to which I am referring.)
My friend asked the teacher if it had ever occurred to him that teacher wages were low because there was no serious demand for these skills outside of the current educational monopoly. Thus, the monopoly is free to set wages very low. If there were real market based competition for K-12 teaching skills, asserted my friend, teacher wages would reflect what the market was willing to bear and there would be fewer problems with shortages. The angry educator was stunned. Such a line of thinking had never occurred to him, but it made sense to him.
As we consider Utah’s K-12 education challenges, it seems that we all too often are likewise locked into limited thinking patterns. This is especially true for those that build influence via the education industrial complex. It seems we are suffering not so much from a shortage of educational spending as from a shortage of imagination — and a shortage of willingness to do what is known to actually work.