Legislators should stop poking holes in Utah’s public schools, the Editorial Board writes

Voters should let lawmakers know that we expect them to support public education.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Myla Rider on a reading assignment at Crescent Elementary in Sandy on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020.

It is difficult to have much faith in the ship you are about to sail on when so many of its officers seem focused only on building more lifeboats.

The Utah public schools have always had their problems and limitations, well before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19. The universal woes of bringing up each new generation are magnified in Utah by the paltry amount of taxpayer support the state provides, always among the nation’s lowest in per-pupil spending, and frequent attempts by those in power to undermine public support for public schools.

For many years now, elected leaders in Utah and elsewhere have attacked schools, teachers and curricula for supposedly focusing too much on the needs of marginalized groups and not enough on re-enforcing the personal prejudices of too many parents.

But what it really at stake is much too important to waste time scoring culture war points. We should not be shifting attention and resources away from what the schools are for, training the next generation of workers, thinkers, creators, voters and citizens. All of that is even more difficult in an age with more single-parent households, more students who are still learning to speak English and students of all grade and income levels who have lost nearly two years of learning to a pandemic.

Instead of arguing about critical race theory and a few books, our focus should be on reducing class size, working in the right amount of technology, boosting students’ ability to write, to work in groups, to make presentations, to speak other languages, to know their history and how their government works .

And this year the Utah Legislature is again looking at a trick to reduce state funding for public schools by allowing parents to use state money to enroll their children in private school. Advocates for the scheme, called the Hope Scholarship Program, claim it is not the same idea as the school voucher plan that was passed by the Legislature, and forcefully squashed through a voter referendum, in 2007.

And, although there are some differences, the new idea is not so much different from the old idea. Certainly, it’s no better. As before, it’s a plan to gin up a migration of students — and taxpayers money — out of public schools and into private schools.

As laid out in HB331, sponsors Rep. Candice Pierucci and Sen. Kirk Cullimore would allow parents to take some multiple of the current state weighted pupil unit — the state’s allotment of cash that a school gets for each student enrolled in a public or charter school — and use that money for tuition at a private school or other educational purposes, such as textbooks or tutors.

How much each family might be eligible for would depend on income and family size. But the argument that private schools might be more economical is destroyed by the fact that HB331 would give lower-income families a double WPU allocation, and those with more moderate incomes 1.5 times the WPU.

The bill would seed the program’s first year with $36 million from the state’s education fund, and leave the door open for private contributions.

The fact is that, even with Hope Scholarships, or vouchers, or whatever else they might come up with, the vast majority of families in Utah will always rely on the public schools to educate their children. Anything that is done to blunt the ability of those public schools to do their job thus threatens the future of most families and our entire economy.

Utah parents already have the option of moving their children to different public schools, or to any of a growing number of publicly funded charter schools. A new push to give them yet another taxpayer-funded escape is not necessary, unless the point is to remove that cultural anchor from our communities.

Even if your children do not go, or did not go, to public schools. Even if you have no children. The strength of our community and our economy depends to a significant degree on a strong system of public education. Most of us know that, and more of us should tell our elected officials what we think.

Some choice and some opportunities for experimentation are appropriate and, in Utah, are available.

But those who seek to undermine the ability of public schools to meet their responsibilities, then look up in feigned amazement when those schools aren’t up to the challenge, are not helping.