by Howard Stephenson
Governor Mike Leavitt met with business and education leaders last week in a series of meetings to encourage formation of an “Employers Education Coalition” which would create solutions to the malaise in Utah public education. The coalition would also focus on what it takes to get Utah’s public and higher education systems to treat employers as customers.
The Governor discussed Utah’s education dilemma: that Utah has high education taxes, but low spending per student. Additionally, it is well known that 100,000 new students are entering the system during the next ten years with no apparent source of funding. The Governor noted that during the past decade, since enrollments have been flat, Utah has been able to nearly double education spending, reduce class sizes from 24 to 20 students per student, implement a nationally recognized accountability system, and increase teacher salaries by 35%.
Leavitt said the coalition would focus on five objectives: 1. Identify the implication of current trends, 2. Assess the financial viability of Utah’s public and higher education systems, 3. Identify objectives that are critical to long-term success, 4. Suggest methods for tracking success, 5. Identify key recommendations.
Fraser Bullock, CFO of the Salt Lake Olympic Committee and chair of the coalition’s steering committee, said that the group would start with a clean slate, without any preconceived notions and would challenge all of the previous data and assumptions. The coalition will consist of a steering committee and a 20 member working group which is expected to include 5 representatives from the education community. Each of several business associations has been invited to furnish one member of the working group.
Staffing for the coalition will be provided by the Utah Foundation. There will be a steering committee chaired by Fraser Bullock, CFO for the Olympics. The steering committee’s membership includes Paul Ross of Alliant Tech, Teresa Beck formerly of American Stores, Fred Lampropoulos founder of Merit Medical, Kelly Matthews Economist for Wells Fargo Bank and Denish Patel.
What Is Needed
More money has always been the historical solution for each new public education crisis. But this time, before any new funding sources are provided, taxpayers must be sure that the new money will not be used to simply continue the current lethargic, unresponsive administration of public education.
Utah taxpayers already pay among the highest taxes in the nation for public education, and I don’t believe they’re willing to pay more until the systemic changes are made to public education. If real improvement is to occur in Utah schools, public education administration must shift from the current monopolistic management style to the type of business management that has made America’s free enterprise system and higher education system the best in the world. We must also finally be willing to subject public education to the power of the marketplace through consumer choice such as tuition tax credits. Additionally, to create responsive education systems, more candidates from the private sector must be elected to state and local school boards.
Despite the fact that Utah public education spending per student is less than other states, there are several evidences that existing public school funds are not being used efficiently and that administration of public schools is not customer-oriented:
There have been countless task forces, audits, commissions, and alliances which have not solved our education problems because every solution to date has insulated education administration from the positive effects of competition.
While Utahns generally agree that a well-educated workforce is essential to sustained economic growth and strong families, many recognize that education problems will not be solved by commissions and alliances that simply propose more money and cosmetic changes to a system that has not adequately responded to the increased funding it has received over the years. Meaningful reform is needed and will only be achieved when the public education management approach is changed and accountability is increased through expanded consumer choice.