During the most challenging of trying times, we often find the best of us trying the most challenging new things.
No place is that more apparent than the education system during the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve all seen the pictures of teachers going to individual student’s homes and teaching through a door. There are digital classrooms and one-on-one distance learning efforts underway that have only been imagined in futurists’ fever dreams.
The next question, however, is why does it take a pandemic for traditional public education to find that creativity? This isn’t an attack on teachers — they have proven their flexibility. Instead, we’re asking ourselves why today’s schools look remarkably similar to the ones we, or even our grandparents attended. While chalkboards have been replaced by projectors or smart screens, the basic structures look awfully similar.
As it turns out, we are getting exactly what we pay for.
Certainly, a few schools are breaking the mold. West Valley City has a school built around a farm. Juab School District is replacing seat time with a focus on skills competency. But the overwhelming majority of our schools, charter and district alike, look, feel and operate in all-too-familiar ways. A comfortable rut.
The Utah Legislature provides about 60 separate streams of state funding to schools (and authorizes various streams of local funding). The overwhelming majority of those streams come with defined uses. If a school wants to use money from stream A, it has to follow those rules. If a school wants to use money from stream B, it has to follow another set of restrictions. And so on. Rules upon rules. Restrictions on more restrictions. Ad nauseum.
Seen from this perspective, a lack of variety and creativity shouldn’t surprise anyone. Utah as one of the lowest in the nation in per pupil funding, suffers from school administrators trying to take every stream of funding they can qualify for. But all those regulations force schools to do more or less the same things in the same ways. Our schools are filled with dutiful compliance officers, not vibrant innovators. While our schools could have been enhanced by online learning, too many were caught ill-prepared when remote learning was the only option.
With the COVID-19 economic collapse, legislative leadership has directed budget committees to recommend how to make cuts of up to 10%. Utah schools and teachers will still be expected to meet the same obligations, but they will have to do it with less money. In other words, they will have to stretch the money they do get in ways that weren’t necessary just last year.
Eliminating restrictions on funding streams allows schools to better customize spending to the needs of their students, not based on bureaucratic regulations. Schools will add some programs, while dropping others. Schools will keep some programs, while adjusting others. They will do so because they can better meet their students’ needs by using the dollars in better ways. Regardless, they will not stop serving the learning needs of students.
There is an inevitable give and take between different levels of government. The same state officials who require all schools to spend money in very specific ways are just as quick to implore the federal government for funding flexibility with block grants, rather than wrap their funds in red tape. That red tape means states can’t be as flexible and creative as they want to be, just as restrictions on funding means schools can’t be as flexible and creative as they want to be.
An English proverb defines necessity as the mother of invention. With the necessity of the pending budget cuts, it only makes sense to untie the hands of teachers, administrators, and most importantly, students.
Now is the time to unleash our schools, rewarding creativity and accountability. Let’s not squander this.
John Dougall is auditor of the state of Utah and a former member of the Utah House of Representatives. Lincoln Fillmore is a current state senator representing District 10 in the southwest part of Salt Lake County.