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Opinion: Utah should look to the Founding Fathers when shaping public education policy

I urge Utah’s legislators to join me in contemplating our Founding Fathers’ attitude towards education as they prepare education bills this session.

(Steve Helber | The Associated Press) This Feb. 17, 2016 file photo shows statue of Thomas Jefferson greeting visitors in the main lobby of the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Va.

As a former member of the Utah Legislature and speaker of the House, I know firsthand the intricate dance of policymaking. Every year, legislators undertake a delicate balancing act as they shoulder the weighty responsibility of improving life for all Utahns. Legislating is not an easy task–particularly when it comes to education policy for Utah’s students.

As the 2024 legislative session approaches and I note national trends on education policy, I have found myself reflecting on our Founding Fathers’ views of public education. These men believed deeply in the value of public education and knew that a well-educated citizenry was critical to fostering a vibrant democracy.

Today, I urge Utah’s legislators to join me in contemplating our Founding Fathers’ attitude towards education as they prepare education bills this session. Men like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Adams had the foresight to recognize that the cornerstone of democracy was not a compliant public but an educated one, capable of tackling complex issues, debating divergent perspectives and making informed decisions. Diversity of thought and educated discourse among citizens were not a liability but an asset for our once-fledgling democracy. So it should be today. How can we preserve this vision of public education through our support of Utah’s schools today?

Consider the following statement of Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence, who knew that education was the bedrock of a free society: “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves…if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”

These words resonate today, when classrooms have, at times, become beleaguered by political distractions rather than generative spaces with the aim of enriching society. I hope legislators would ask: How can we empower all of Utah’s students to exercise “the ultimate powers” of the kind of society we want to live in?

Or we could look to James Madison. Often hailed as the father of the Constitution, Madison emphasized the link between education and the preservation of liberty when he said: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.”

Madison enlarges our societal responsibility to include equipping students not just for the workforce but, more importantly, for active and informed citizenship. How can Utah’s public educational system prepare students to enter the public arena with confidence and knowledge?

Furthermore, John Adams, our second president, wrote: “Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially for the lower classes of people, are so extremely wise and useful that to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.”

Adams had the foresight to assert that education was not a privilege for the elite but a fundamental right for all citizens and worthy of nearly any expense. How can we in Utah strive to foster an inclusive and equitable education system that elevates every child, regardless of background or socioeconomic status? How can we foster Adams’ “human and generous mind” when funding such an ambitious endeavor? This is a crucial question today as the legislature experiments with scholarships which, in my opinion, may benefit certain groups more than others. We cannot afford to under-educate any segment of our population.

Public education, as envisioned by our Founding Fathers, was not about facts and figures; it was a crucible for fostering engaged citizens committed to the common good. Similarly, Utah’s public schools today must be more than a place to learn math and grammar. They must be laboratories of values like tolerance, empathy debate, and civic duty that undergird a healthy society while including everyone.

Those who sacrificed so much to establish the state of Utah clearly understood the need to provide equal and quality opportunities for all of our children.

To my legislative colleagues: Let us remain true to the founding vision of public education as an enduring investment in an engaged populace ensuring everyone an equal chance to find the educational opportunities they need and seek.

I hope we will all rededicate ourselves this year to the profound vision that the strength of a society is found in the education and wisdom of all of its citizens. In so doing, we will honor America’s founding legacy as we ensure the continued success of all Utah students.

Nolan Karras

Nolan Karras is chairman of The Karras Company, Inc. in Roy, Utah. He served in the Utah Legislature from 1981 to 1990 where he served as speaker of the House. He also served for 12 years on the Utah State Board of Regents and was the chair of Gov. Gary Herbert’s Education Excellence Commission from 2013 to 2018.

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