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State Superintendent Larry Shumway on Tuesday implored lawmakers to invest in public education and to leave partisan politics out of schools.
"We cannot have the best school system in the country and be the lowest in the country in funding," said Shumway in his fourth and final State of Education address before his Jan.1 retirement. "We can't be first if we are always last."
Shumway delivered his speech to a room full of teachers, administrators and others connected to public education who burst into applause after Shumway's comments about the need to better fund schools. His warning that children won't benefit if control of public education is transferred to the Legislature or governor's office, instead of being overseen by the State Board of Education, also drew cheers from some.
"Utah will be best served by open, nonpartisan elections for local school board members and state board members. That's how our students will be best served," he said.
He brought up rumblings of constitutional amendments that would limit the independence of state board and said such a move would allow political "evangelists of the extreme" to dictate the direction of schools.
He also ran through a laundry list of accomplishments for Utah schools over the past year, including 20,000 students taking advanced placement exams; leading the nation in the number of dual-immersion language programs; and launching a pilot program where every graduating senior was able to take the ACT college entrance exam, encouraging some students who hadn't thought of applying to college to pursue a higher education.
And schools made those accomplishments at a per-pupil funding level less than that received in 2008 and lower than the per-pupil funding rates of every other state in the U.S., Shumway said.
Although schools received a boost in funding from the Legislature this year, Utah's schools added 50,000 students, which resulted overall in a per-pupil funding level that is less than 2008 levels, he said.
While Utah's economy crawls out of the recession, Shumway urged lawmakers to fund student growth and technology, calling public education one of the "highest returns" for citizens.
"As prosperity returns, let's avoid the pitfalls of the past," said Shumway. "Avoid the lure of reducing our [funding] efforts as the economy improves. Let's set the course right. Let's make the investment in our children."
Besides education funding, Shumway also emphasized the demand for better technology in schools.
He cited a new state program underway in which three Utah schools have been selected to receive $3 million worth of technology, training and support to become a "smart school" over the next three years. The schools are receiving iPads for each student, along with more desktop computers, a technology infrastructure, audio systems, teacher training, Apple TVs and high-definition TVs for classrooms.
The initiative is exciting, Shumway said, but is only affecting three schools while Utah has about 1,000 schools and 600,000 students.
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said following Shumway's speech that he is encouraged there is discussion about how to bring better technology to schools. Stephenson spent part of Tuesday at the Digital Learning Summit in Salt Lake City, where the importance of incorporating technology in teaching was a focus.
"I appreciate Superintendent Shumway's focus on technology because it has the capacity to individualize instruction," said Stephenson. " ...Individualized instruction produces significantly better gains than the 19th century classroom."
Shumway ended his speech by thanking his colleagues in the state office and educators across the state for their support during his tenure. He said he feels "overwhelming confidence in our young people. I'm overwhelmingly optimistic."
He then quoted a poem by Carl Sandburg titled "A Teamsters Farewell."
"Good-by now to the streets and the clash of wheels and locking hubs; The sun coming on the brass buckles and harness knobs," he read. "... All the crazy wonderful slamming roar of the street O God, there's noises I'm going to be hungry for."