howardnlby Howard Stephenson
We’ve all heard urban legends from time to time. These are sensational stories which are purported to be true, but contain little truth. They are often used to get people upset. It was once popular to spread urban legends through chain letters. With the advent of email, they have become much easier to share. It seems a week doesn’t go by that I don’t receive some preposterous story about how somebody is getting away with murder and how we all need to get involved to prevent it.
A recurring urban legend claims that the United States Post Office wants to impose a tax on email. Another claims that Madeline Murray O’Hare wants to get all religious broadcasting off the public airwaves.

I suppose urban legends are created by the type of people who create computer viruses, but the urban legend writers apparently aren’t smart enough to write computer code.

Well, now a DMN opinion writer has published a story about the Utah Legislature which I would definitely classify as an urban legend.


“If Utah lawmakers performed half as well as Utah educators, the state would be the envy of the nation,” wrote Don Gale in a June 6, 2003 opinion piece in the Deseret Morning News. Actually, this is not the legend part. I agree that Utah educators do a good job with what they’re given, but I don’t know why the writer insists on making a black-and-white ‘legislators are bad, educators are good’ type of contrast.

The urban legend portion of Mr. Gale’s column claims that the legislature has all but abandoned education arts funding and paints a picture of legislators as a bunch of Philistines who wouldn’t have the foggiest idea how to properly eat crepes or quiche.

The urban legend portion of Mr. Gale’s editorial claims the following: “. . . the legislature decided arts education is not important because it isn’t ‘vocational.’ (Conversely, lawmakers decided competitive sports build vocational skills, even though research doesn’t support the point.)”

As a State Senator I have chaired the Public Education Appropriations Sub-committee for the last few years and I have never heard any of my colleagues claim that arts education is not important, much less because it’s not “vocational.” I’m not sure whether Mr. Gale is making this up or whether he’s stretching some obscure statement out of proportion to prove a point. Even if one of the 104 legislators said something to question arts funding, to attribute that position to the entire legislature is grossly unfair.


Mr. Gale continued, “Lawmakers think writing is grammar, spelling, punctuation and a test. That’s like thinking piano is a cardboard keyboard, musical notes, and ‘Chopsticks.’”

Does Mr. Gale really believe legislators feel this way? What could possibly motivate him to write such absurdities? Where does this “bash-the-legislature” attitude come from?

Mr. Gale must think journalistic ethics is grammar, spelling, punctuation, and meeting a press deadline.


Had he bothered to do his homework, Mr. Gale might have learned that the Utah Legislature has actually been increasing arts funding in education in the past few years, despite massive three-year budget shortfalls totaling more than $700 million. The legislature worked hard to hold education as harmless as possible. But according to figures from the Office of Legislative Fiscal Analyst, appropriations for fine arts and sciences organizations actually increased from $2.2 million in 1999 to almost $3 million in the 2004 school year. This is an increase of 36% over five years or more than 6% per year. These fifteen fine arts and sciences organizations, including the Utah Symphony, Ballet West, and Utah Opera Company, take thousands of performances to Utah’s approximately 700 schools. Frankly, I don’t know of many budgets which have grown during that five year period. In fact, many budgets have shown significant declines.

By contrast, I am informed by friends who are education arts advocates that in these tough budget times some states have virtually abandoned arts funding in schools. For example, I am told that before he left office in Minnesota, Governor Jesse Ventura – a performing artist in his own right – totally eliminated arts funding in the state budget. I am also informed that Colorado has just de-funded its arts council. Other states have slashed arts funding in order to balance budgets.

I could go on.

My point is, unlike what is happening in other states, or what happened during previous Utah budget down-cycles, the Utah legislature has rejected the expected solution to budget balancing and has preserved arts funding. And I fully expect that when the economy turns around, arts funding for education will continue to flourish.

On top of this, the legislature recently put millions of dollars of what had been line-item funding for education into block grants with no strings attached. We consciously determined that local school boards were better equipped to make decisions about what are the greatest priorities for funding. We decided that the legislature should no longer serve as a “super school board,” and instead trust the locals to govern. This change makes it possible for local school boards to put millions more into classroom music programs. But it’s their decision, not the legislature’s. Every local school board in Utah also has local taxing authority with which arts programs could be funded. But Mr. Gale writes as though only the legislature can fund the arts.

Despite this, Mr. Gale wrote the following scathing rebuke of unnamed Utah legislators: “If our 21st century renaissance is to flourish, children must have opportunities to experience the wonder of art. Most teachers understand. A few dedicated angels in the arts understand. Sadly, too many lawmakers — and too many voters who put them there — do not.”

Based on recent trends during tough economic times, the legislature has shown that it does value arts in education. I suppose the best characterization of the legislature’s philosophy behind preserving arts funding in the lean years is an ancient Persian poem which was shared with the Education Appropriations Sub-committee before it voted to continue funding for arts in education:

If of thy mortal good thou art bereft,
And from thy slender store
Two loaves alone to thee are left,
Sell one, and with the dole
Buy Hyacinths to feed thy soul.

I would invite all citizens – including Mr. Gale – to learn of the legislature’s commitment to education, and especially arts in education.