“Our Kids Are Counting On Us”
Our Schools Now has created a buzz in Utah not just about education funding, but also tax policy. Regrettably, some have become focused on tax structure while overlooking the overwhelming evidence that calls for additional investment in education. As this initiative moves forward, we cannot afford to forget what’s at stake.
First, student achievement in Utah currently falls short. By multiple measures, thousands of students are not receiving the education necessary to be successful in the 21st century. End of year testing for elementary students? In every assessed subject — math, science and English — more than 50 percent of Utah students are not proficient. That’s roughly 200,000 students. ACT tests in high school? Widely recognized as a standard of college and career readiness, it’s evident our kids aren’t sufficiently prepared for post-high school pursuits: 67 percent do not meet the ACT science benchmark, 66 percent do not meet the ACT math benchmark, 56 percent fall short of the ACT reading benchmark, and 41 percent fail to reach the ACT English benchmark. Sadly, education in the U.S. is deteriorating to such low levels that some are willing to accept these results as adequate. Should we be satisfied by simply scoring better than poor performing states? I don’t think so.
Second, the lack of quality teachers in our schools warrants additional investment. The University of Utah Education Policy Center recently found that within the first 5 years of teaching, 42 percent of teachers leave the profession and within the first 7 years, 56 percent quit. Four school districts in the state could hire every teacher produced by Utah’s colleges of education (assuming none leave to teach in other states), leaving 37 school districts scrambling to find applicants, regardless of credentials. Ultimately, parents care deeply about their children being taught by well-trained, highly-qualified, and passionate educators, and that requires properly investing in teachers.
Third, creating an educated workforce provides Utah residents a substantial return on their investment. By 2020, 66 percent of Utah jobs will require an advanced degree or certificate beyond high school. We’re at 48 percent today, leaving thousands of high-paying positions ripe for non-Utahns to take. Likewise, PricewaterhouseCoopers just reported that over the next 15 years, 40 percent of jobs in the U.S. are at risk of being lost to automation, the most of any country in the world. Creating a world-class education system will sustain our state’s economic prowess, keeping employment opportunities in Utah — for Utahns.
As education attainment has become more concerning in recent years, local organizations began reaching real consensus on how to improve results in Utah. Prosperity 2020, Education First, Envision Utah, the National Conference of State Legislators (with Utah representation), the Governor’s Education Excellence Commission, United Way, Economic Development Corporation of Utah and Chambers of Commerce from across the state agree on what will drive improved student achievement. Each specifically calls for all students to enter school ready to learn, have access to high-quality teachers, maintain proficiency in reading and math throughout school and graduate high school ready for college or a career.
This level of consensus presents a chance to bring real change to our schools. But the programs to implement each of these policies require funding, and currently there is not enough available to make a meaningful investment. As our economy grows, so does the need for more infrastructure and an education system to serve more students. Funding for education from economic growth has been insufficient in reducing teacher turnover and improving academic outcomes. It’s clear additional revenue sources are essential to elevate education in Utah.
In order to maintain Utah’s quality of life, strengthen our economy, and provide students with opportunities for future success, a significant investment in education is imperative. Failing to do so will drive away top-notch teaching candidates, suppress student potential, and keep high-paying careers away from Utah.
Modern society demands excellence in education. We know what needs to be done to make this a reality. Our kids are counting on us.
Ron Jibson is the recently retired chairman and CEO of Questar and co-chair of the Our Schools Now ballot initiative.