The pervasive attitude on the first day of school is optimism. Children, parents and teachers all generally see the start of a school year as a beginning, an opportunity to improve, a chance to learn more, teach more and prepare for a better future. That's the way it should be.
However, in Utah, teachers and children face unique challenges. State lawmakers too often put other budget priorities transportation comes to mind ahead of public education. It seems conservative legislators expend more effort trying to siphon education funds to private schools than increasing revenue streams for public schools.
Despite the hard work of our teachers, Utah's perennial last-place rankings among all states in per-pupil spending and class size are beginning to erode traditional signs of a healthy school system, including readiness for college.
The graduation rate, although considerably lower than many believed, may be improving.
For too long Utah education officials insisted that the state's graduation rate was near 90 percent. Under a more honest formula mandated by the federal government, Utah's high school graduation rate hit 78.4 percent in 2009, an increase of 6.5 percentage points over the previous year.
Still, 21.6 percent of Utah students are dropping out or not tallying enough credits in their four years of high school to earn a diploma. The dropout rate for Latino students is about 50 percent, and that is inexcusable.
Nonetheless, there are reasons for optimism. Last year's National Assessment of Educational Progress shows Utah eighth-graders scored higher in science than the national average for 2011, according to the Nation's Report Card, and Utah public-school students' scores overall increased three points from 2009. On NAEP reading and math tests, Utah students scored at or above national averages, though their scores didn't change significantly between 2009 and 2011.
Still, Utah minority and low-income students are scoring far below their white classmates.
ACT scores for the Class of 2012 dropped, but that is partly because more students are taking the college-entrance exams, a necessary first step to increasing college enrollment. Still, only 23 percent scored high enough to be considered ready for college or good jobs.
All Utah children deserve a bright future. If optimism is justified, it's due largely to the commitment of educators. But, as long as schools remain underfunded, too many will fall behind and give up. The Utah Legislature can change that by putting education funding first.