SALT LAKE CITY — If you have problems with vertigo, you probably shouldn’t involve yourself with trying to assess public school performance in Utah. It doesn’t take long for otherwise healthy people to get dizzy.

The latest report from the nonpartisan, nonprofit, just-the-facts Utah Foundation does an admirable job trying to make sense of any relationship between spending and outcomes in Utah’s public education.

That’s an age-old question. Trust me on this one. About 20 years ago, while serving as opinion editor, I decided to begin republishing one letter to the editor each week from the vast archives of the Deseret News. I found many from the early 20th century decrying the lack of funding for education and the need to pay teachers more.

I knew things hadn’t changed much when we started receiving brand new letters rebutting those old reprints.

But ultimately, as the report notes, it’s hard to draw any straight lines connecting money with outcomes. It’s hard to draw many strong conclusions, period.

The data contained in the new report, titled, “Making the Grade?” is useful, especially as it compares Utah to other states with similar demographics. But it contains enough qualifiers and explanations to make you wonder if the truth ever can be determined.

Utah compares well with states that spend many times as much per pupil for education. But Utah has a higher proportion of college-educated parents than most states, which probably gives many students a natural advantage outside the influence of the school system. The state is more urban than many states its size, which translates into larger districts and fewer administrative costs, and that means limited funds go farther.

Then again, the assessment test Utah requires its students to take keeps changing, and parents are, for some reason, allowed to opt their children out of taking them. Which kinds of kids tend to opt out? Smart ones? Kids with learning challenges? It’s hard to say.

Utah students are just under the national average when it comes to ACT scores. But then, Utah requires all its high school students to take the test, and most other states don’t. You can’t really compare all Utah students with only college-bound students elsewhere. Utah actually compares well with the other 19 states that require all, or almost all, students to take the test.

Also, the data doesn’t measure how Utah students are doing “in soft skills, such as communication, critical thinking, teamwork and leadership.”

And on and on. Getting hold of how the state really is doing in education is like corralling mercury that has spilled on a waxed linoleum floor.

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To get to the most important part of the Utah Foundation report, you have to read a ways. It’s found in the conclusion, on page 19: 

“Ultimately, Utahns must ask: To what standard do we aspire for our public education? Best in the West? Best in the nation? Best in the world? Once that standard is clear, the question becomes unavoidable: To what extent are additional resources necessary to reach that goal?”

Despite all the comparisons and the qualifiers, I doubt many Utahns would be happy with the results from those who didn’t opt out of the state standardized tests. Less than half of them measured as proficient or better in math, English and science.

And this is after five years of progress in the overall scores.

Certainly, we could start by finding ways to fix this problem, which has ultimately implications for society’s future.

But truly answering what we, as a state, aspire for our public education, requires leadership, a plan and a direction. For that, we need to decide who is in charge of public education. Is it the state school superintendent? The State School Board? The governor? The Legislature? Who sets the vision? Who can implement the kind of change that makes the state more competitive in an international race for jobs and innovation?

I’ve asked this question before. The answer is that each of these has a piece of it, and each has limitations. 

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A number of suggestions have been made. Last year, former state Sen. Jim Dabakis sponsored a bill that would have abolished the State School Board and let the governor appoint the superintendent. He called the lack of leadership in Utah education a “dirty little secret” and compared it to a school bus being driven by multiple people.

His bill failed. That doesn’t mean the state’s leadership should stop debating changes.

Despite the dizzying statistics, the Utah Foundation report gives Utahns a lot of reasons to feel encouraged about things. Teachers, administrators and parents here do a lot with limited resources.

But we ought to wonder how much better we could do with a little vision and firm direction. 

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