As Salt Lake Tribune columnist Robert Gehrke laments a new poll revealing that over half of Utahns oppose a ballot initiative to raise the gas tax to increase funding for education, I wonder why Utahns fail to understand the nature of public education. A person can be pro-education and still oppose a gas tax. What a reasonable person cannot do is claim to be in favor of public schools but only the schools their children attend.
The real problem inside Utah public education is the failure to embrace all Utah children. The money is there. Utah spends more of its budget on education than any other state. The outcomes are there. Utah has higher graduation rates than states that spend as much as three times more per pupil. Utah’s middle to upper class kids do well because the entire public school system – from standardization to family structure – serves them well.
The system does not serve low-income and rural students very well.
The problem with the Our Schools Now initiative was not the new money it requested. The problem was that none of that money would have made its way down to the struggling students who really need it. The problem with the November gas tax hike initiative is not the tax hike or the method of taxing. The problem, again, is that none of the new money will impact the students needing impact.
I understand why 56 percent of Utahns oppose the tax hike for school funding – Utahns spend sufficient to educate a majority of our majority. This approach does not require huge increases in school funding. All it requires is enough money to keep up with population growth. The huge leap in funding is needed for the struggling kids – the minority of the minority.
If Utah has an education problem, it is because we have a vision problem. The majority does not see the minority and, when the minority is seen, it is objectified. The minority becomes a charitable cause, not part and parcel of the system that serves everyone else well. The minority is seen differently.
I dare anyone to challenge this conclusion.
The public school system was designed to encourage socio-economic parity. In other words, it was designed to lift the minority. Federal involvement in education has little to do with telling local schools their business, despite every handwringing right-wing conspiracy theorist. Federal involvement in education always has been about low-income and rural students getting at least as much scholastic attention as majority students. The largest federal education program, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, is about one thing and one thing only – minority students.
So when policy makers and enlightened parents clamor for local control, all they are supporting is a public school system to benefit the majority. And when the federal government imposes programs such as ESSA, it is only seeking balance. If Utahns supporting local control want the Feds out of education, the answer is simple: Pay equal attention to Utah’s minority kids as much as you do the majority.
Our Schools Now easily could have tailored its plan for extra school funding to target minority students, such as kids living in intergenerational poverty. Likewise, advocates of local control and parental choice could have targeted school vouchers on minority students. Neither group did it when they had the chance – mostly because majority taxpayers do not want to spend money on anyone other than themselves. If minority students ever became an issue in those causes, it was simply as political fodder. When I pointed out during the voucher fight in 2007 that 44 percent of Utah’s Hispanic students failed to graduate with a traditional diploma, the head of the Utah Teachers Association looked me in the eye and told me, “Oh Paul, you know their parents don’t care.”
Utah has a public school system for its white middle-to-upper class families. The system serves them well. It has no clue how to address the desperate needs of struggling minority and rural students – not because educational leaders are stupid, but because the system we have is not now designed to serve those needs. Maybe we are subconsciously racist as many minority advocates claim? I think we are just selfish and blind to the needs of others – regardless of how much charity we claim to throw at our minorities.
The problem with Utah schools is not money. The problem is cultural, if not spiritual, failure among the white, Mormon middle-to-upper class majority who naturally pay for our, by which I mean “their,” educational system.