Utah schools chief laments wilting funding
In his third annual State of Education speech Tuesday night, State Superintendent Larry Shumway praised teachers and Utah schools' use of technology but had at least one major criticism: the state's declining school funding effort.
"Our effort, our willingness to invest, just doesn't match our claim of valuing children, our claim of being committed to the future," Shumway said. "I believe we must do more."
Shumway cited a recent Utah Foundation report that showed that the proportion of Utahns' personal income that goes toward public education in the form of tax revenue has declined significantly over the past couple of decades. Utah ranked eighth in the nation on that measure in 1992, but had dropped to 26th by 2009.
"I find this difficult to understand, in a state where we speak so ardently about our commitment to families and children," Shumway said.
It wasn't the only bone of contention in Shumway's speech. In the address, Shumway praised growing partnerships between schools and businesses; schools' innovative uses of technology, such as iPads and iPod Touches in the classroom; Utah schools' achievement given limited dollars; and teachers for being the "linchpin in the system."
But he also expressed concern over diminished state funding for training for teachers and a push by some to change who controls education in Utah. Last legislative session, lawmakers considered but did not pass a bill that would have given the governor control over education. Now, a 15-member elected state school board oversees education.
"There are some people who believe we need more concentrated power when it comes to education governance to streamline things, to speed things up," Shumway said. "Personally, I believe that separation of powers is the American way."
And Shumway defended a recent state school board decision to support the idea of eliminating current laws that some say make it difficult to fire experienced teachers. The board instead would like to leave the firing process up to school districts but require them to place limits on how long teachers can expect to be continuously employed.
He said contrary to some claims, the board is not looking to turn teachers into at-will employees, "but we are committed to giving schools greater flexibility to manage their workforce."
After Shumway's speech, Utah Education Association (UEA) President Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, who attended the address, said any sort of teacher termination system should be tied to the new teacher evaluation system the State Office of Education, with help from many others including the UEA, has been developing.
"We spent 18 months collaboratively working on this with the state office and all of a sudden not to have any evaluation tied to this seems to be counterproductive," she said.
Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, who also attended the speech at Woodrow Wilson Elementary in Salt Lake City, said Shumway touched on some important issues, including technology and the challenges teachers face. He said, however, he doesn't see Utah's education funding effort changing in the immediate future.
"Under current circumstances, that's just not going to happen in a material way," Bell said. "When the economy comes back and we have more income tax and people are more secure, then I think there will be more education funding. We're not going to raise taxes. People are barely making it, so we have to keep doing with what we have."
When asked after the speech if he was referring to a tax increase when talking about the need to do more about Utah's declining education funding effort, Shumway said, "I don't know how we should do this but I do know that it is worth it to invest in our children."
Gov. Gary Herbert is expected to give his own education speech, to be broadcast to Utah's school children, Wednesday morning.
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