Op-ed: Here’s my three-point plan to get Utah public education back on track

First Published      Last Updated Jul 05 2015 09:36 am

Utah's K-12 education has fallen off a cliff over the last generation. But there is a solution. A dramatic solution. Without raising taxes!

First the problem. A report released by the U.S. Census Bureau last month ranked the state's 2013 per-student spending at the bottom of the heap for U.S. states. Utah's 2013 per-student spending — $6,555 a year — against a national average of $10,700 is pathetic. The highest state spends $19,818 and our neighbor Wyoming manages $15,878.

But that's not all. Our test scores are falling, high school graduation rates have plunged and our students are woefully unprepared for college. Our classrooms are the largest in the nation and our teachers are the worst paid (on a per student basis). Our dedicated hero teachers and administrators are the bright spot on a very bleak landscape.

Just as important as the lack of money is the arcane system for governing Utah K-12. No one is steering the K-12 education ship. We have the state school board (increasingly run by ideologues obsessed by minor issues like Common Core and evolution). We have a governor who is granted almost no power over the state's largest expenditure. And we have a legislative branch with the control over the purse strings but who also cannot resist the temptation to micromanage Utah's classrooms.

Here are three bold, innovative and generation changing ways to get Utah once again competitive in the most important challenge of all — making sure our kids are ready for the 21st Century!

1. Repeal the disastrous 1996 constitutional amendment that has stolen billions of dollars from Utah K-12 classrooms. Unwittingly, the state started abandoning our K-12 children in 1996. Before then, 100 percent of state income tax went to K-12. In 1996, the state income tax piggie bank was cracked opened to funding for things other than K-12. That horrible decision, according to the legislative fiscal analyst, now costs Utah's school children $690.8 million dollars a YEAR! If we simply went back to 1995 — without raising any taxes — we would be boldly on the road to recovery for future generations of our most precious resource.

2. Bring back the graduated state income tax. In 2008, Utah experimented with a flat tax. It has been an abysmal failure. Transferring hundreds of millions from our school children to our wealthiest citizens. Lowering the highest rate from 7 percent to 5 percent has cost the state schools (charter and public) between $110 million and $180 million a year. Money stolen from our children's future.

3. Put the governor clearly in charge of K-12. Make him (or her) responsible! I occasionally disagree with Gov. Herbert on issues, but it is unfair to expect him (or any other governor) to fix a clearly dysfunctional system without giving him the constitutional authority to do so. The first step toward seriously fixing K-12 education in Utah is dumping the outdated governance model.

There are many state models that work well. Utah's current system is unwieldy, inefficient and ineffective. It holds no one responsible. There is no one captaining the ship. Voters have no one to praise or blame. The governor has little to say in the state's most important responsibility. The Legislature funds but has no power to broadly administer. The part-time, 18-member elected state board, has the "general control and supervision of the public education system." But it has not been up to the task — and the board has little say on funding.

I have just joined the Governor's Commission on Education. Good people. Smart people. But, do we have the courage to lead the way with serious, major, epic changes? Or will the commission punt and revert to producing another dusty, unread report for the trash heap of history?

If this group cannot change the paradigm, then I don't know who can. And I despair for Utah's future.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, has just joined the Governor's Commission on Education.