Editorial: We must guard against the deliberate undermining of Utah’s public education system

Take a look at some public education success stories from Utah schools.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) A kindergarten class practices reading at Westmore Elementary School in Orem, Monday, Sept. 11, 2023.

This is the year that Utahns should be all in on building the strongest and most effective system of public education possible.

Digging ourselves out from under the wreckage of lost learning caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has provided an opportunity — and some funding — for some fresh thinking and experimentation.

A recent Salt Lake Tribune survey of post-pandemic strategies in Utah schools revealed several that appear to have been effective in boosting reading levels. In supporting teachers and improving educators’ connections with their students’ families. Helping students who were homeless or otherwise challenged in their personal lives. Showing students who might not otherwise have considered going to college a path to higher education through Advanced Placement courses and other opportunities.

The same is, we may hope, true of a new way of teaching reading in the primary grades. It is called Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, or LETRS, and it has shown remarkable progress in a small pilot roll-out at Orem’s Westmore Elementary School.

Some of this stuff works. It needs to be watched, copied and funded.

Yet we approach the 2024 session of the Utah Legislature mostly in hopes that our proudly out-of-touch lawmakers just don’t make things worse for our schools.

It is up to all of us, not just parents and educators, to let our elected representatives know that shorting public education as a politically grandstanding move in support of some odd version of family values is not something we want, not something we will tolerate.

For the foreseeable future, one fact remains undeniable. The vast majority of our children will come up through the public school system. It is therefore in everyone’s interest that such a system be as robust, as effective, as responsive, as creative as it can be.

This is true even for people who do not now have, never have had or never will have children in the public schools. We are all surrounded by, receiving services from, doing business with, hiring or being hired by, operated on, reading journalism produced by, protected and governed by public school graduates. They need to be the best.

And real education is not only embodied in the move to stress the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — important as those subjects are.

Real education of necessity stresses history, civics, geography, media literacy, philosophy and the arts. Falling short in those areas is a major cause of division and manipulation in our society, a clear threat to the future of our civilization.

As former Utah Gov. Gary Herbert was fond of saying, when it comes to public education, it’s not all about the money. But it is some about the money. Public education is where our resources must be focused.

It goes far beyond the pointless and distracting focus some in our political class put on imagined stacks of pornography in our school libraries or fantasied waves of transgender students kicking down locker room doors.

Beware, also, of activists and politicians who pick fights over diversity, at the K-12 and university level, as another distraction from the real mission of education.

Diversity in our schools is not a theory or a warped dream. It is a fact.

Our schools are responsible for educating everyone, including ever-increasing numbers of students from families that have little formal education in their backgrounds and can’t begin to prepare their children for a rigorous schooling experience. Who are homeless. Who don’t speak English.

(One survey indicates there are more than 100 different languages spoken by students in the Salt Lake City School District alone.)

The agricultural/industrial era of leaving school in the eighth grade and making a good living is over. The days of Utah as a land of uniformity, where the schools could “Stack ‘em deep and teach ‘em cheap” are gone for good.

We must guard against the deliberate undermining of our public education system as some lawmakers look for more ways to divert revenue from the state income tax, once devoted by the state Constitution to education and education alone, to other uses.

And as legislators and other activists push to expand a taxpayer-funded voucher system for private and home schooling. A system that hasn’t even enrolled its first student yet.

The Utah Fits All Scholarship, created and endowed with $42.5 million by the Legislature in its 2023 session, ponies up enough to offer $8,000 to each of 5,000 students whose families are seeking alternatives to public and charter schools. And to have the taxpayer share in the cost, even as the state has no way to look to see if the schooling provided is worth the cost.

This is a lack of oversight no lawmaker should or would tolerate for public schools or other public agencies. Yet, for this side hustle, a lack of accountability is not a bug, it’s a feature.

As others have pointed out, it sounds far too much like offering state money to families that are already relatively affluent so they can send their children to elite country clubs and athletic facilities because public parks and rec centers just aren’t good enough for them.

This semester, er, legislative session begins Jan. 16. Be aware. Do your homework. Engage in a parent-lawmaker conference with your legislator.