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Education: Florida should emulate Utah schools, not the opposite

Published September 18, 2010 12:01 am

Con • Florida should emulate Utah schools, not the opposite
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When Jeb Bush came to town, I was enthusiastic to learn more about Florida's reform effort. I was led to believe that Florida's reforms had the effect of propelling Florida past Utah in the true end game of public education: college readiness. But as I investigated a little further, it turns out that Florida has a lot to learn from Utah.

When I was in the Utah Senate, I often heard the drum beat of Utah, the worst in public education funding in America. It left Utahns feeling ashamed of their educational system. It reminds me of a student who is disenchanted because he received a "C" on his test. However, it turns out that everyone else in the class failed the test.

You see, context is everything and the Utah educational story never seems to be placed in proper context. Public education think tanks rank states on everything from class size to teacher pay. All of this data is collected and distributed to indicate to the rest of us what needs to be done in order to have students succeed in becoming college ready. I found this to be a somewhat backward approach.

Shouldn't you look at the states with the highest test scores for college readiness and then backtrack to determine how they did it? It reminds me of a football game where one team dominated the other in rushing and passing yardage, but the other team won the game. In the end, all that really mattered was the final score.

In Utah, we have a great final scorecard. It's time that we recognized it. The Utah model continues to break the mold foisted upon us by these think tanks.

Among the 27 states whose students primarily took the ACT in 2009, Utah ranked eighth. In fact, over the years, Utah has consistently ranked in the top 25 percent of states in student college readiness test scores. Utah ranks 10th in student pass rates on AP tests. You would never guess that if you simply listened to the "talking heads."

When compared to Utah, Florida isn't even in the same ballpark. Let me give you a few 2009 statistics from the ACT. Utah students averaged a composite score of 21.8, while Florida students averaged a mere 19.5 — that's a difference of two full points. In ACT jargon, that's the difference between the major leagues and double A in baseball. The scores in math and reading are just as stark. Utah students averaged a 21.1 in math and 22.6 in reading, while Florida's scores were 19.7 and 20.2.

What is even more astonishing is that Utah ranks first in the nation in state efficiency. We have the most efficient school system in the country. We're 51st in spending, but eighth in ACT outcome. A recent study combining the ACT and SAT test scores together in order to give a 50-state comparison shows Utah 12th overall. This is the reason why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce found Utah to have the best "return on investment" with respect to its educational dollars. It's money well-spent.

We are in the middle of one of the worst recessions in our nation's history. States all around the country have deficits in the billions of dollars. Florida spends twice what Utah spends per student. So why isn't Jeb Bush stopping by Utah to find out how we do it — high test scores and prudent spending? For that matter, why are not the Californias of the nation looking to the Utah model of efficiency?

This is not to say that Utah can't improve; it can. The State Board of Education's reform efforts in its "Promises to Keep" initiative puts us on the right path toward that improvement.

To the extent that Jeb Bush's suggestions help us to achieve our goals, we'll be more than willing to consider them. However, let's remember that context is everything and within context, Utah is a leader in the educational reform movement, not a follower.

David L. Thomas is a member of the State Board of Education from District 4 and a former Republican state senator.