Derek Monson: New law shows the triumph over zero-sum mentalities in education

HB 215 rises above ideological divisions to help the common good.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A packed room listens in as Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, sponsor of HB215, otherwise known as “Funding for teacher salaries and optional education opportunities,” speaks on the bill in committee at the Utah Capitol on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023.

With Gov. Spencer Cox’s signature on HB 215, students and educators in Utah are going to see historic reforms to Utah’s education system.

They include a $6,000 increase in the compensation of every educator and licensed professional in public schools and the possibility of an $8,000 scholarship for every student and family not well served by their local public school to help them pursue alternative options better suited to their unique needs.

Combined with significant increases in public school funding — some already set aside and more almost certain to come — we ought to view HB 215 as proof of Utah’s intent and habit of rising above political and ideological divisions to enact policy solutions that serve the common good. You don’t have to support the legislation to recognize that reality.

Sadly, zero-sum political mentalities on either side of policy debates get in the way of such a perception of education reform legislation like HB 215. The zero-sum mentality can be seen in comments effectively suggesting that private schools are sources of rampant discrimination because they are not public schools, or in remarks expressing a general animosity toward public education. In other words, the zero-sum mentality often finds expression in extreme views among people of influence that distract attention from what voters really want and deserve to know: Will HB 215 help improve their child’s education as well as the education of others’ children?

What is remarkable about HB 215 is how it starts to turn the page on education politics poisoned by a referendum that happened more than a decade and a half ago. The most newsworthy element of HB 215 is not its teacher salary increases or its new education choice program, but the fact – too little noted in media coverage of the legislation – that the policies in HB 215 can literally help every student in Utah get a better education.

Public school students can be better served by teachers – especially early career teachers – and other licensed education professionals who interact with students with a greater peace of mind about their current and future financial footing. Private and home-school students can be better off in an educational environment that is not only better suited to their unique learning needs, but is more financially sustainable for their parents.

HB 215 is the political and policy proof that education policy can – and should – serve the common good by benefiting students, families and educators no matter where a student attends school. That narrative is mightily uncomfortable for the zero-sum mentality, which forms political and policy perspectives that create and rely upon impassable divisions between those in public schools and those in non-public school options.

The common-good narrative means admitting that funding public schools and helping non-public school students are both good things in their own ways and that doing both is not only possible, but probably preferable. It demands that we strive for unity by rising above our personal partisan preferences and ideological commitments instead of exploiting division to bolster our own political agenda, fundraising or reputation.

All too often, the zero-sum mentality prevents the kind of policy discussion where common sense can be even heard, let alone prevail. This increases the chances that policymakers consider extraordinary measures to enact legislation.

The vast majority of Utahns on all sides of the debate over HB 215 are united in their desire to help children and families thrive. If we, as voters, communicate that desire to policymakers through our words, votes and political donations, then extraordinary measures won’t be necessary to achieve broadly beneficial education reform. Through such efforts, we can ensure Utah’s education policies focus on the common good instead of narrow, zero-sum agendas.

Derek Monson | The Sutherland Institute

Derek Monson is vice president of policy at Sutherland Institute, a principle-based public policy think tank in Salt Lake City.