Originally published in the Deseret News.
The future of education in Utah begins today. Unfortunately it isn’t starting in local communities or even in the Utah Legislature but in the form of a ballot initiative. Such initiatives are typically expensive, media-driven, take-it-or-leave-it propositions, with no real opportunity for dialogue, debate or compromise. Advocates for the increase, which includes hikes on both sales tax and personal income tax, say the end justifies the means — as the result will add needed funds to education. We would be wise to follow the axiom of Irish author Joseph O’Connor who said, “It is not a matter of ends justifying means, but of the creation of new means and new ends.”
We need to stop for a moment and determine where we are and where we are trying to go with the means and ultimate ends of education in Utah. Before a critical debate in the U.S. Congress, Daniel Webster said: “Mr. President, when the mariner has been tossed about for many days in thick weather on an unknown sea, he naturally avails himself of the first pause in the storm, the earliest glance of the sun to take his latitude and ascertain where he is in relation to his desired course. Let us imitate this prudence and before we float on the waves of this debate refer to the point from which we departed, that we may at least be able to conjecture where we now are.” Discussions about education means and ends often create a stormy sea of opinion and waves of politically divisive rhetoric.
So where are we? I haven’t spoken to a single Utahn who doesn’t agree that our school systems must be better and do more for students, parents and teachers. I don’t have any doubt that the promoters of the tax hike ballot initiative are committed to improving Utah schools. However, without real innovation the initiative is both bad process and bad policy. Citizens are being asked to vote for a 10 percent rate increase in the amount of both the sales and income tax they pay in order to fund the possibility of incremental improvement to an education system that is completely inadequate to meet the needs of 21st-century students.
“No taxation without innovation” is really a call for discussion regarding both the means and ends of education reform. Increased funding for education is not an end. Choice for parents, flex spending accounts and charter schools are not ends. Standardized tests and measurement are not ends. Increased pay and incentives to retain top teachers is not an end. The end, which should drive the beginning, middle and conclusion of this debate, must be the needs of individual students and how to best help them achieve their best and unlock their unlimited potential.
I would also add, as we float on the waves of this debate, that blowing up someone’s Facebook page or melting down their Twitter feed because they disagree with you on how to improve education is neither a good means nor a noble end — it is just mean and ends badly for everyone. We have to do better in our deliberations about education.
We live in a world of massive customization from technology to travel and everything in between. With an eye toward individualization, every student in every city and town in Utah should have the means to attain their personal ends out of Utah’s education system.
My colleague Christine Cooke recently stated, “If a tax hike seeks to fund various shades of the current education delivery method, we should oppose it. … But increased funding for public education, accompanied by genuine innovation, choices and transformation? We should all want to join that conversation.”
Will we need to invest more in education in order for our young people to compete in a global economy? Of course we will. Such an investment requires every taxpayer and citizen to engage in a serious and elevated conversation about what the goals for education should be, what means will be required, how we will prioritize limited resources, who will be accountable and what specific ends will be achieved for Utah’s students.
Lawmakers are always hesitant to propose, let alone vote for, tax increases. A ballot initiative is a high-cost, high-stakes gamble on outdated means and ends to education funding and outcomes. Getting on the ballot will be expensive, but I am certain it will ultimately be achieved. Citizens, sensing there aren’t any new means or positive ends to current education challenges, will likely vote down the tax increase ballot initiative. This will reinforce to lawmakers that every tax increase is automatically bad, at least bad for their re-election prospects — and that kind of thinking is also bad for Utah and its citizens.
I maintain what I have often stated, that we should invest — and possibly even increase our investment — in ideas and innovation that give students the opportunity to choose an educational path that meets their unique needs. We need to have a new discussion about education and education funding in Utah. If the tax increase ballot initiative leads us to new means and new ends, it will be a success. If all we do is argue about dollars and cents and raising taxes, it will mean little and produce nothing for Utah students in the end.