The same thought runs through my mind every time I see a homeless person in downtown Salt Lake City, on a street corner or at the side of a freeway exit. This person was once a child just like my son or daughter. He or she had their life and all their hopes and dreams ahead of them. Somewhere along the way, something went terribly wrong. Through a complicated mix of bad luck, family breakdown, mental illness, substance abuse, incorrect choices and public policies, this once innocent and beautiful child is left with a shopping cart, a tarp, a cardboard sign and visible despair.
I will leave the family breakdown, mental illness, substance abuse and even bad luck to the appropriate subject matter experts. I want to talk about the public policies — specifically education — that lift people to a better place. If we invest more in people, we will have better societal outcomes for everyone.
The Nonbinding Opinion Question No. 1 on the November ballot asks if voters support a 10 cent motor fuel tax increase to help fund public and higher education. Thirty percent of the proceeds will also fund transportation improvements. The tax will cost the average driver $4 a month and increase per pupil spending by $150.
I support Question 1 for myriad reasons. I like that it provides $125 million more annually to Utah’s education system. I like that local schools decide how to invest the money to improve student achievement. I like that funding cannot go to district administration or school construction. I like that schools must publish their school improvement plan and will be held accountable if they fail.
But what I like best about Question 1 is that it will improve educational outcomes for Utah children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. As Utah’s education system provides improved instruction, hires more guidance counselors, retains talented teachers and provides more personal attention to students, particularly in the younger grades, Utah children will have the best chance to succeed.
As good as Utah’s education system has been for me and my family, it faces significant challenges that deepen and intensify every year. As recently as 1990, Utah’s minority population tallied 8.8 percent. Today, Utah’s minority population represents 21.5 percent of the population. This impacts education because many of these students speak a language other than English at home. It will take more investment to help these children thrive.
We also know that Utah’s public education system is showing signs of significant stress. Utah’s SAGE testing results show student proficiency below 50 percent in language arts, math and science. In a global economy, our economic future will be directly correlated with the abilities of our workforce.
Another stress indicator comes from Education Week, an independent and nonprofit education journal. It gave Utah a “C” grade for quality, the same grade as the nation. I don’t want Utah’s education system to be average, I want it to be exceptional. Even more revealing, Education Week gave our state a “D-” for school finance. Utah ranks dead last in per pupil spending. I know that spending doesn’t mean quality and not all spending is wise, but I also know that we will pay an economic price if we underinvest in our children. There is a reason why they call the bottom ranking “dead last.”
Horace Mann, the father of American public education, once called education “the great equalizer of the conditions of men.” Utah voters have the opportunity to invest a greater portion of their wealth into the success of others. It’s a benevolent cycle that lifts both the giver and the receiver. Next time you see your children, grandchildren, neighbor kids or even a homeless person on the side of the street, consider what a high-quality education means to future success. Vote for Question No. 1.