howardnlby Howard Stephenson
America’s legislators back to school week just ended and Utah legislators visited more schools than any other state in the nation. From the time Representative Marda Dilree and I chaired the first back to school week in 2000, Utah legislators have led the nation in the percent of legislators visiting schools. These legislators take time off from their regular jobs and go into more than 100 schools to speak, to listen, and to learn.

U-Pass results are available

Speaking of assessments, the first substantial results of the Utah Performance Assessment System for Schools (U-Pass) were unveiled online last week. Utah now has the most comprehensive statewide public education performance reporting system in the nation.

As senate sponsor of the legislation enacted in 2000 following a two-year task force, I know the Web site took three years to create. The intent of the law is to hold schools accountable for student achievement by reporting results of multiple, varied assessment tools in the context of demographic and socio-economic characteristics of each school’s studentbody. The annual report also reports the qualifications of the faculty members at each school and the average class size of the school by grade level or subject area.

Never before in any state have citizens been able to see how schools are doing to this extent. Now, for the first time we can compare the performance of all public schools on a multitude of factors. Results of criterion-referenced tests are disaggregated by gender and socioeconomic status to expose any under-served student populations. Nationally-normed Stanford Achievement Test results are compared with district, state and national scores.

It is my hope that parents, teachers, students and employers will look at the data, ask the tough questions about their school’s performance, and then give praise where it is deserved. The U-Pass results can be accessed online at .

New taxes sought for education

The past month has seen public hearings throughout the state on “Performance Plus, Tuning-UP Utah’s Great Education Engine,” as proposed by Governor Leavitt and the Utah State School Board. The school board says the proposal represents a combination of Congress’ No Child Left Behind, Utah’s Senate Bill 154 which was pushed by Fraser Bullock’s Employers Education Coalition, and U-Pass. They say the proposal will “raise the bar” so that all students will graduate with core curriculum competency, while requiring increased parental involvement, increased student commitment, increased public support, and most of all, significant additional funding.

“Significant funding” is translated to mean approximately $400 million in ongoing higher spending. Although education planners say half of this can be achieved by reallocating existing resources, the remaining $200 million bump does not include new money already needed to fund growth of between 100,000 and 150,000 net new students over the next ten years. It does not include money to fund the inflationary costs of teacher salaries and benefits. Nor does it include the $1.4 billion in costs associated with approximately 80 new buildings to house the influx of students.

I’m skeptical about the projected costs of raising the bar in public education. I have looked at the figures and, frankly, there is insufficient detail to really know what is being called for. I believe the cost estimates are grossly overstated. For example, Performance Plus calls for spending $95 million to create diagnostic, online assessments to be used by teachers of math, science, reading, and writing to better assess student progress throughout the school year. Countless teachers have asked, “We’re already giving tests throughout the year on the subject matter we’re teaching. Why do we need to spend $95 million for students to take the same tests online?” There are actually some good arguments for online assessments, to provide more immediate feedback to teachers and to perform statistical cross-tabulations to inform teachers of concepts missed by students. But one leading private sector online assessment provider tells me their cost to license the entire state with K-12 ongoing progress assessments specifically designed for Utah’s core curriculum would be about $7 million. This is a far cry from $95 million. I believe other costs are also grossly overstated. It appears that increasing academic standards is being used as an excuse to raise more money for education.

If Utah had another $200 million for public education, I’d rather put a huge chunk of it into merit pay, to go only to the teachers whose students show the greatest gains in academic performance throughout the school year.

School buildings cost too much in Utah

Public education officials, school architects and contractors holler every time I say this, but it’s true — Utah spends too much on school buildings. For years I’ve said we ought to have more austere buildings like they have in other states. With the onset of charter schools, we’re finding functional, attractive buildings can be built for a fraction of the cost of school board approved buildings. I recently attended the dedication of American Preparatory Academy’s new $2 million charter school in Draper. The building houses 450 students — a little more than half the studentbody of a typical $9 million public elementary school. Timpanogos Academy Charter School in Lindon had similar costs. The charter school building cost per student is about half that of the regular public schools. It’s time local school boards wake up and put the dollars into student instruction instead of monuments to themselves.

School Board Selection Process

Senate Bill 154 changed the way state school board members are selected. Currently, a panel of education-related delegates submit candidate names to the Governor who places two names on the ballot for each opening. SB 154 employs a method where half of the delegates on the nominating panel are from the employer community — the businesses who hire Utah’s public school graduates. There is expected to be a push at the upcoming special session of the legislature to eliminate businesses from the selection process. This would be a huge mistake. I don’t know why educators should be selecting the candidates voters can choose from. It’s like allowing employees of a company screen which candidates stockholders can elect to the board of directors. It’s a little like asking the fox to guard the henhouse.

Tuition Tax Credits

Finally, with accountability in place, it’s time to allow parents of school age children to vote with their feet. It’s time to allow free-market competition to do for public education what it has already done for the American consumer. This was the most significant recommendation of the Employers’ Education Coalition but the one recommendation that has not made it through the legislature. Before we pony up any new money for education, taxpayers must insist that the real cost saver — tuition tax credits — are available first.