Don Gale: Rod Decker’s new book charts the decline of Utah education

Veteran Utah journalist Rod Decker recently published a book titled “Utah Politics: The Elephant in the Room.” The book should be required reading for every Utah legislator, every Utah politician, every student of Utah history or politics, and every Utah journalist.

This does not mean simply carrying the book around and pretending to read it but actually reading the words and thinking about the numbers.

Two reasonable conclusions from reading the book are (1) that Utah is a good place to live and raise families, but (2) that the state has become less so in both categories over the past 30 years. It is a lesser place to live than it once was, and it is a lesser place to raise families than it once was, thanks largely to the failure of Utah politics. Self-centered lawmakers have come to care less about the long-term interests of Utah and its people and more about their own short-term concerns.

In typical Decker fashion – and in keeping with good journalistic values – he does not necessarily spell out those conclusions. He simply offers an incredible amount of data that leads the reader to draw her or his own conclusions. The quantity and quality of research Decker invested in the book is astonishing. In some cases, his information collecting goes back to early statehood days.

The writing is also typical Decker fashion – short sentences, thoughtful structure, much more information than opinion. On occasion, one can almost “hear” Decker’s intensified voice pronouncing the words. (Some of us remember that Decker started his Utah journalism career as a reporter for one of the city’s daily newspapers. That experience certainly influenced his reporting style when he switched to broadcast journalism.)

The book provides data to show that Utah was heavily dependent on the federal government during the years of the Great Depression, World War II and the post-war economic boom. (For many years, what we once called Hill Field was the largest employer in the state.) Recent legislatures and political leaders worked hard to turn citizens away from the federal government. How quickly we forget!

Decker’s data-gathering also makes him question what he calls "the downwinders story,” a narrative used often to drive one more wedge between Utah citizens and government programs. (Some of us may disagree with Decker’s conclusions on that subject, but it’s tough to argue against the data he provides.)

Facts and figures in the book show clearly that, for much of the state’s history, citizens expected the Legislature to provide the highest levels of education the state could afford. As a result, a high percentage of personal income went to support education, among the highest in the nation. That’s one reason Utah youngsters often performed better academically than those in other states, despite the fact that Utah’s per-student spending was at or near the bottom of the nation.

That legislative response changed in the 1990s, when politicians began tinkering with education goals and practices. Although most Utah politicians knew little or nothing about education, they forced more testing, tinkered with curriculum, extolled so-called charter schools and steadily cut funding for education.

Governors and lawmakers may claim otherwise, but the facts presented in Decker’s book are not debatable. As he says in the final chapter: “Utah schools remain underfunded, unreformed, and underperforming.”

The primary point of Decker’s book is also not debatable: Utah politics are dangerously out of balance. Until the state finds a way to create more political balance, the well-documented downward spiral will continue to drag Utah away from being a good place to live and a good place to raise families.

Don Gale has been writing about Utah issues for 50 years. Education is the subject about which he has written most often.