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School funding

Published October 11, 2012 9:52 pm

The last shall never be first
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It is time to stop being proud of the fact that Utah's schools aren't as bad as they might be, given the low levels of state funding they get, and start being ashamed of the fact that they are not as good as our students, our families and our businesses have every right to expect.

Utah's leaders have long focused on the silver lining. They have bragged, with some justification, about the fact that our schools have been able to somewhat overcome the fact that they place dead last, year after year, in per-pupil funding by posting good test scores and running acceptable graduation rates. It was a testament, it was rightly argued, to the strong families and dedicated teachers who value education and make the best of whatever situation they find.

But, as time goes by, it becomes more and more difficult to put lipstick on this pig. Breaking down scores and rates, as required by the No Child Left Behind rules, exposed the dirty secret that many children indeed were being left behind. Children from low-income families, immigrants and non-English speakers just were not keeping up. And, as more and more of the students found in our public schools are members of one or more of those groups, overall educational results were falling as well.

This is the situation that Larry Shumway looked at day after day during his three years as Utah's school superintendent. And it was the theme of his valedictory State of Education address delivered Tuesday.

"We cannot have the best school system in the country and be the lowest in the country in funding," Shumway said, stating the obvious. "We can't be first if we are always last."

Shumway, who will retire Jan. 1, urged lawmakers — and, by extension, the voters who elect them — to devote more resources to education. He also called for an end to some of the ideas that have been suggested for monkeying around with public education governance, rightly rejecting the notion that problems can be solved by moving the boxes around on the organizational chart, or by giving political activists and ideologues more say in how the schools are run.

Politicians who see any increase in funding as nothing more than throwing money at a problem may often have a point. But, in a state that barely tosses enough money at such a key underpinning of civilization, any real improvement is going to cost money.

It would be unreasonable to expect Utah's schools to jump from the lowest-funded to the highest in one go. But it is long past time that we stopped being satisfied with the fact that we've done better than might be expected, and start doing better than we've ever done before.