Leaving Kids Behind 

With so many large families, and so much church-owned property off the tax rolls, it’s almost inevitable that Utah schools will rank last in per-pupil spending. But the blame for that situation ultimately stops not at the Temple door but at the Legislature’s door.

Enter state Rep. Jim Ferrin, R-Orem, who sits on the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee. Ferrin’s committee is seeking input on which core subjects should be taught in public schools. It’s a legitimate question, but state arts educators have an equally legitimate suspicion of Ferrin’s motives: that he heads an effort to focus schools on the 3 Rs at the expense of the arts.

Which brings us to businessman John Bennion, chairperson of the governor’s Employer’s Education Coalition. Bennion believes the true measure of the success of the education system would be based on a business model. Recently, he suggested a system of funding based on how schools contribute to the state’s economy, as measured by test scores and college prep courses. Read: non-arts courses.

If the result of the efforts of Ferrin and Bennion is to weed out feel-good puffery, such as apocryphal courses like the Music of Orrin Hatch, then more power to them. But if the fears of arts educators are realized, such efforts could turn Utah’s public schools into drone-training institutions turning out worker bees for corporate America.

So they are already doing that. But the goal should be to educate young people to be creative problem solvers and independent thinkers.

If Utah societal dynamics result in an economy starved of the traditional sources of funds to have a first-rate public school system, then legislators like Ferrin and businessmen like Bennion should first be finding creative ways to put more money into the schools.

On top of that, the Bush administration is proposing changes in the highly successful Head Start program, which was designed to prepare poor children for school by resolving poverty-driven issues that prevent them from succeeding. The program serves 6,500 children in Utah.

The Bush administration wants, for the first time, to require partial state funding of Head Start. Other changes include academic readiness requirements. There’s nothing wrong with helping young people be more academically prepared, but can that be done without threatening the traditionally important work of Head Start? Requiring funding from cash-starved states suggests the program will eventually be asked to do more with less money, and that could result in fewer children served.

There is a precedent for this concern: the National Education Association is planning to sue over the unfunded mandates in the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind law.

As a symptom of misplaced priorities, the underfunding of public schools is particularly troubling in view of the huge wad of cash Congress and the president just threw at the wealthiest citizens in the tax cut (I’d like to know Mr. Bennion’s take).

It is absurd to suggest that a country this rich can’t find adequate resources to support public schools. We should admit the tax cut was a mistake and put our money where our future is.

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John Yewell

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