Though nodded toward with numbing frequency, the situation of public education in the state of Utah remains an embarrassing reality.
The embarrassment lies in more than how we appear to others, in the regrettable perceptions had by those outside of Utah. The essential embarrassment is the failure to evince any improvement of the situation.The standardized test scores of children who begin public education in Utah are significantly above the test scores those same students produce at the end of their public schooling.
On average, for Utah's youth, the experience of receiving their education through public institutions constitutes a net loss in their academic and intellectual aptitude relative to their peers throughout the nation.
The curious response by those charged with repairing the situation is a feeble, "Aren't you glad it isn't worse?"
They take odd comfort in noting that, on nationally administered college entrance examinations, Utah's high school seniors are never more than a short distance from average. There is something unfortunate in that posture, where being average has become the standard of success. Utah's children deserve better.
I am convinced that Utah's public schools maintain their grip on the average largely out of the strength of a moral climate that places high premium on personal industry, integrity and responsibility.
Without this propping up in the form of predominant social values that oppose the disintegration of families, early pregnancy, drug and alcohol addiction, the unrestricted availability of pornography, etc., the schools would be in shambles.
Yet taking pride in the moral climate is one thing; presuming that it somehow excuses second-rate educational achievement is unconscionable. Rectitude does not atone for ignorance.
A boldly restructured system of public education combined with the moral foundations native to Utah will propel the state to unexcelled distinction in the schooling of its youth.
For this to occur, two fundamental understandings are required. The first is that public schooling has degenerated to a custodial phenomenon, where those who would otherwise teach are encumbered by the exigencies of discipline - exacerbated by fitting too many students into too few classrooms and then failing to provide them with the materials for learning.
The other fundamental understanding is that the current system of public schooling must be replaced. It is not resuscible by increased funding. It is a shopworn system. Something quite new is called for.
What is required is the giving of public education over to private initiative, to entrepreneurial energies, to communities of economic competition with their proven capacity to redeem, to enliven, to innovate, to enrich.
Within five years it is possible to convert the present state system of public education to a system that retains local public oversight of schooling while giving liberal license to private initiative.
The governance of schools must be entrusted in much greater degree to parents. The state will exercise limited oversight; it will be more directly assigned to local boards, which will exist largely as guarantors of minimal standards of performance by providers of schooling.
The license to privatize will be extended across the manifold of school support functions as well: land and buildings, meal service, custodial and maintenance service, transportation, etc.
Empowering of parents in the governance of schooling will be accomplished through equitable apportioning (vouchering) of the funds now available for public schooling. This arrangement also constitutes the primary incentive to providers of schooling.
A per-student voucher system can be expected to promote competitiveness, diversity and creativity among those who vie for parents' choices, in the process elevating the overall standard of schooling to levels unachieved by traditional public schooling.
The final requisite is a greater valuing of teaching and learning. No longer will parents get away with lip service to the importance of good education.
They will be expected to be direct participants in the schooling of their children through frequent interaction with teachers, through active sponsorship of school learning in the form of family conversation, personal reading and writing, and through setting time and space apart for students' study within the home.
At both home and school, students will be held to higher expectations. That learning is hard work, that the life of the mind is virtuous will be commonly understood.
Whether this is the best time to undertake the remaking of Utah's public schools is arguable. Deferral carries its own risks.
What is perhaps most needed is for those in the driver's seat - the governor and the State Legislature, who, while gutless on the matter of teacher compensation, have shown themselves quite capable of innovative thinking where educational technology is concerned to put on boldness, to give their keenest thought to the means for securing that future.
This is a call for vision by those who lead Utah. The writer of Proverbs reminded that where vision fails, people perish. Our children are people.