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Sometimes it takes a guy who's walking out the door to tell the truth: Utah will never have a top-tier public education system until lawmakers open their closed fists and raise Utah above its current standing as the state that ranks dead last in per-pupil spending.

State Superintendent Larry Shumway got it right in a pre-retirement speech this week when he said Utah "can't be first if we are always last."

How long, every Utahn should ask, can public education continue the largely excellent work it does without the unalloyed backing of lawmakers, the governor's office, business owners and taxpayers?

Students, parents, teachers and administrators know what public ed needs. Ultra-conservative lawmakers under the sway of the Utah Eagle Forum, the Sutherland Institute and the American Legislative Exchange Council don't, preferring to "bleed the beast" and grab as much power over the system as they can.

Shumway clearly opposes legislative ideas about transferring control of public education to the Legislature or the governor's office, and wants to return to open elections of local and state board members.

As Martell Menlove, the incoming superintendent, would say, "Check the Utah Constitution." It's right there in Article 10, Section 3: "The general control and supervision of the public education system shall be vested in a State Board of Education."

Look, there are 600,000 students in Utah's public schools. Most of them are smart, diligent kids whose parents, teachers and friends challenge them to do their best.

Teachers, although much maligned, spend many more hours in the classroom than they're credited for. I live across the street from an elementary school, and I see them arriving hours before classes start and leaving long after the kids are gone.

With a total school-year budget of about $270, they also spend a lot of their own money on supplies, from basics like pencils and paper to study plans and books. With salaries as low as they tend to be, that's a hardship that shouldn't exist.

Add in non-English-speaking students, underachievers, kids with disabilities, reading issues, and a host of other factors. Despite it all most Utah school teachers possess the durability, patience and heart to stick it out for decades.

Are there bum teachers? Absolutely. I had a few in California and Utah public schools. There are also bum businesspeople, cops, doctors, lawmakers, students and, yes, journalists.

It's those legislators, and the executive branch, who ought stop bragging about how great Utah is for transplanted companies and use their power to divert money from, say, defending doomed federal land grabs into public schools.

After all, the estimated cost of $3 million plus to defend that land grab would buy a lot of pencils — and computers — and give more students the human and technical resources they need.

And maybe even give their teachers a raise.

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at, and Twitter: @pegmcentee.

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