Is Utah’s secret sauce — its ability to collaborate and work together — its best path forward?

Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, headlining a panel on what policies and investments will support the future of success Utah’s K-12 system, said innovations that came about during his time in office were largely due to Utahns ability to collaborate and work together.

“I don’t remember a single one of them that was accomplished simply by passing a bill or making an appropriation. It was because people worked together with a set of very clear objectives. They collaborated, they worked and they achieved,” Leavitt told attendees of the “What’s Past is Prologue: Public Policy Lessons from the Past Quarter Century” forum on Monday.

The event was hosted by the Kem C. Gardner Public Policy Institute with the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics.

“What makes Utah a great place is a willingness to work together to solve common problems, and as long as we keep that, our state will continue to be prosperous,” Leavitt said.

Panelists who included career educators, education leaders and state lawmakers examined public policy lessons from the past quarter century and how they apply to pressing issues today. Some panelists urged a new engineering initiative, a reboot the plan put into place during Leavitt’s term as governor.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said as she travels around the country, she is often asked about Utah’s education system because it is perceived as a state that is modernizing education.

“We are the only state that did not drop in eighth grade mathematics during the pandemic because we invested seven years prior in technology. Because of that, and during the pandemic it was not perfect by any means, but we were able to keep our foot on the gas and keep going,” she said.

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, who is a public school educator that specializes in education technology, said technology obviously plays a key role in education moving forward but helping students build positive relationships with their peers and trusted adults “would be the best thing we could do to make lifelong learners and engaged citizens.”

Opportunities to build relationships with students fall by the wayside when schools are laboring “to check all these boxes” they are expected to do, she said.

“We are eliminating what really is important about our everyday life and when we’re successful, is building those relationships. So in high school, keeping those kids into schools, keeping them with these relationships, having these conversations with adults and their fellow peers, this is what’s going to build a better society.”

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, speaks as she joins with former Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt, Rep. Susan Pulsipher, R-South Jordan, and others on an education panel as Utah policy experts gather for discussions hosted by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the Thomas S. Monson Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 18, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Rich Kendell, a former Utah Commissioner of Higher Education, school superintendent and long-time educator, questioned how Utah will deal with its growing achievement gap.

“I don’t think any democracy can survive by dividing people along racial lines, gender lines, socioeconomic lines. If you look at all of the data that you produce, you will see a yawning gap between the achievement for the people of color and others. We can’t do that. We can’t continue to do that,” he said.

Addressing state lawmakers in attendance, Kendell spoke to the recent passage of HB261, which requires the state’s public colleges, universities, K-12 schools and government offices to remove “diversity, equity and inclusion,” from their program names and open any specific race- or gender-based efforts to all individuals.

“I know that it was a very hot issue, and I would have to say to the legislators here, you know what the impact is going to be on these people of color who have relied on programs that help them be successful,” Kendell said.

Three values are “absolutely core,” he said.

“One, we celebrate diversity. Don’t just accept it, we celebrate it. We want equity, not necessarily in outcomes, but everybody ought to have an equal shot. Didn’t Hamilton say that ‘I’m not gonna give away my shot?’

“The third one is inclusion. My comment to that is, you have a great transgender kid, ‘I want you in my school.’ You got a gay kid, ‘I want that kid in my school’. You have a kid that’s gotten behavioral disorders, I want him in a public school where he can get an equal shot. We are not delivering on that promise,” he said.

Rep. Susan Pulsipher, R-South Jordan, who served on a local school board before she was elected to the Utah Legislature in 2016, responded to questions about the cost of school buildings, which residential builder Clark Ivory described “as out of control” remarking on the $120 million price tag for high schools.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson and Rep. Susan Pulsipher, R-South Jordan, talk after their panel discussion as Utah policy experts gather for discussions hosted by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the Thomas S. Monson Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 18, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“We’re putting too much into the structures and not enough into the people. What can we do to change that?” Ivory said.

Pulsipher said when she was on the Jordan School District Board of Education, the board carefully scrutinized the cost of school construction, down to the cost of nails and lumber. The district was able to shave construction costs by 18%, she said.

“It can be done. It’s largely a local issue,” she said.

Dickson school districts are aware of the costs and labor to reduce them by reusing architectural plans. She acknowledged that property taxes continue to tick up “but we have crumbling schools. We need to make sure we have technology infrastructure. So I think we have to get some of those basics right. But I love walking into a nice high school and in particular, kids deserve places that are at least adequate and I’ve seen some that are not even adequate for our kiddos.”