Trying to keep up with the Joneses can be damaging to one’s home environment – and to a state. Oft-expressed concerns about Utah’s public education funding highlight what I mean.
According to a new Utah Foundation report, Utah continues to spend less per pupil on public education than any other state and has fallen from 8th to 26th in education spending as a portion of personal income since 1992. For some reason, how Utah compares with other states is typically the focus of most conversations about Utah’s public education spending efforts (for example, see here).
While state-to-state comparative analyses may be informative and useful in some ways, to argue that Utah should spend more on public education, or on anything else, simply because other states, or all states, or the whole world, spend more than we do is illogical.
It’s like a husband insisting the family buy a riding lawnmower just because the Joneses have one, even though his family’s income is much lower and he can cut his small lawn using a push mower in the same amount of time he would take using a rider.
Similarly, each state might not want or need a John Deere for its public education system. The revenue streams, budgets, priorities, preferences, demographics, political climates and records of success of each state are different. In addition, some states might spend huge amounts of tax dollars on ineffective programs while other states fund successful programs with much less.
I’m not arguing for or against the idea of increasing spending for Utah’s public schools. If our schools are outdated or crumbling to pieces, if our classrooms are overcrowded, if our teachers are underpaid, if we’re already using current funds as responsibly and efficiently as possible, then by all means let’s talk about increasing spending. But if our reason for considering tax hikes to increase spending is because “everyone else is doing it,” then let’s wait for an argument with more substance.
Keeping up with the Joneses arguments crop up all over in public debate. We must remember that Utah is a unique state. It has not been and will not continue to be a leader and example to the nation by latching on to the latest fad or by constantly comparing itself with other states. We need to do what is best for our own people.
As we work to craft Utah-specific solutions, such as the recent Utah Compact and HB 116, we might borrow some good ideas from other states and states might choose to replicate our ideas, but that would only be a byproduct of our choosing to do what’s best for Utah.