This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
This week begins Utah's legislative session a time when, according to a new poll, 50 percent of Utahns want the Legislature's top priority to be improving education.
This week is also National School Choice Week – a time when students nationwide are celebrating educational options and taking to social media to bring public awareness to school reform.
The point is there's a lot of talk about education reform right now.
At Sutherland Institute, we believe we should invest in education. But students need an investment of disruptive innovation more than they do money.
Utah's public schools need an investment of the best ideas, creativity, ingenuity, and the most thought-provoking questions of the status quo to ensure our education system meets every student's unique needs.
Education is about the potential of the individual student, because students experience learning individually, not collectively. Everyone's needs should be met by our public system. Luckily, most agree on these objectives.
But even with common objectives, some education advocates settle for perennial requests for more money and the status quo, without asking tough questions regarding those for whom the system fails.
Simply asking for more money addresses only part of the problem. If our public schools are failing students, it is in part because our system is poorly designed to meet students' needs. Our public dialogue should progress from money to policies that will allow our system to improve student outcomes.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser recently said that he wouldn't oppose additional revenue for public schools as long as the funding would clearly improve educational outcomes. This is exactly the right approach for Utah policymakers. Research shows that when it comes to funding, what matters most is how we spend it.
The perfect illustration is a comparison of Utah and Washington, D.C. Half of Utah's discretionary state budget is dedicated to K-12 education, even though Utah has the nation's lowest per-pupil spending. Still, Utah boasts some great academic achievements, leading the nation in basic subjects on NAEP, Advanced Placement, and graduation rates.
On the other hand, the District of Columbia outspends the nation in per-pupil outlay. Yet there is no shortage of attention on the dismal state of D.C. schools and how their system fails its students.
If money alone is not the answer to (or metric for) education reform, we ought to look to disruptive innovations that we should fund.
We should begin by rethinking arbitrary traditions that can be barriers to learning: grade levels, the Carnegie Unit, technology, and funding based on enrollment. We should empower students to progress at their individual pace. Students who need more time to learn algebra should get that time, not simply a passing grade.
Utah should also rethink local control. States should empower districts through policies like "assessment choice," in which districts choose tests from a menu of approved options. Excessive testing and privacy of data concern many families. Resolving these issues through policymakers closest to the student allows for solutions crafted to meet specific, on-the-ground circumstances that they must fit to be worthy of being called solutions.
Utah should also pursue personalized education – recognizing that the traditional classroom model is ill-suited to fit every student's needs. Utah should pursue a flexible education spending policy that allows parents the opportunity to use a portion of their child's education funding to meet their child's unique needs, through a variety of academic options like tutoring, unique curriculum, therapies, and digital learning. It should not be a private school voucher or a giveaway to those whose income already affords them academic choice. It should empower working and middle-income families especially those in vulnerable economic, family or academic circumstances with the hope of educational and economic opportunity that currently is only widely felt by the wealthy.
In a week dedicated to thinking about education reform, we should be fearless in trying to make education better for children. Our investment ought to be the time, effort and patience needed to find the best education reforms and innovations to meet the needs of every child – the only initiative worthy of increased funding.
Christine Cooke, J.D., a former public school teacher, is education policy analyst for Sutherland Institute.