The crowd of best friends

Join us in a ‘Tweet Up’ celebrating #SchoolChoice next week

When it comes to education, students deserve options. No two students are the same. Every student has specific needs, interests and potential. Parents and teachers know this. Students do too. It’s common sense. So why not allow students whatever opportunities will help them meet their unique potential?

Many believe we can do better in offering options to families, which is why a growing nationwide movement celebrates choice in education each January.

At the end of this month—from January 22-28—students, schools and other organizations will participate in National School Choice Week (NSCW). The week is intended to draw public awareness to school choice. Groups across the country will hold rallies and events to celebrate and acknowledge the academic benefits students obtain when they have meaningful options.

Individual learning and human potential is the ultimate purpose of education. At Sutherland Institute, we believe that robust education choice, facilitated by principled public policy, honors this truth.

To celebrate National School Choice Week, Sutherland Institute will participate in a “Tweet Up” on Monday, Jan. 23, between 12:30 and 1:30 p.m. The “Tweet Up” is a fully online event where anyone with a Twitter account can retweet or “like” our school choice content to create a virtual rally. Join us on Twitter on Jan. 23 for the hour and be sure to use the hashtag #SchoolChoice!

Here are a few more facts about National School Choice Week:

  • The first National School Choice Week took place in 2011.
  • Last year, 16,745 events were held in the U.S. for School Choice Week.
  • Last year, 27 governors issued state proclamations to recognize School Choice Week.
  • The NSCW is a nonpartisan, nonpolitical celebration.
  • Last year, 20 state Capitol buildings held rallies and events for School Choice Week.

Don’t destroy public education – transform it

We don’t need the destruction of public education; we need a transformation of public education. With an eye toward individualization, every kid down every street in America must have the opportunity to learn in a way that unlocks his or her potential.

I hope you share my exasperation with the strident voices at both ends of the education debate. Those loud and usually shrill voices ensure we all stay a safe distance from actually solving the problems and challenges our education system faces today.

Those who believe that public education is an evil system – are wrong. Those who believe we shouldn’t raise another penny for education – are wrong. Those who believe bureaucrats in Washington and powerful unions have all the answers – are wrong. Those that advocate that more money alone will fix education – are also wrong.

Will we need to invest more money in education? YES! AND – before we make such an investment we should have a serious and elevated conversation about what it is we are building, how we will invest, what we will measure and what we will achieve for our students as a result.

The promise of a renewed and elevated education dialogue rests on two main ideas: (1) Education requires that we meet the unique needs of the child; and (2) education calls for the empowerment of parents, students and taxpayers to create learning paths as unique as each student.

World-renowned expert on disruptive innovation Clayton Christensen of Harvard University recognizes the need for significant disruption at every level of education. He regularly challenges educators, administrators, business leaders, policymakers and parents to engage in a different kind of conversation about what we are trying to accomplish in education.

The impulse to improve education is a noble one, but approach is as important as intent. Some education advocates perennially call for more money in schools. Such a reform sees only half the problem with the status quo and half the opportunity to transform it. Money alone does not create improvement. Sutherland Institute believes that money is only as good as the ideas and innovation it funds.

We should invest – and possibly even increase funds – in ideas and innovation that give students the opportunity to choose an educational path that meets their unique needs. We should not simply invest money in the current system or be satisfied with incremental improvement in a system that is inadequate to meet the needs of 21st-century students.

Teachers and administrators are the champions of education. They work tirelessly to guide students to their potential. On the door to a teachers’ lounge in an elementary school I once read a quote that said, “We the overworked and underpaid have done so much, for so long, with so little that we now believe we can do anything with absolutely nothing.”

Teacher shortages and dissatisfaction has increased in recent years, for a number of reasons. Exhaustion, exasperation and too many talented teachers exiting public education are a result of teachers daily experiencing the frustration of burdensome regulations, extraneous requirements, and a lack of meaningful reform.

It’s time for serious disruptive innovation in education. Education needs big, bold ideas. It needs transparency and accountability. It needs adequate funds focused on the needs of 21st-century students. Education needs leaders, inside and outside of the system, who will question outdated assumptions and engage in a different conversation about where we are, where we are going and what we will need to do to build tomorrow’s education system – beginning today.

I have never met anyone who is satisfied with mediocre results for our students. We may disagree on the methods, policies and processes, but we can all agree that we must put the uniqueness of each child first if we are going to build a public education system that will last.

That is where we must begin. I invite you to join us in an elevated dialogue about the future of education.

For Sutherland Institute, this is Boyd Matheson. Thanks for engaging – because principle matters.

This post is an edited transcript of Principle Matters, a weekly radio commentary broadcast on several radio stations across the country. The podcast can be found below.

Receive this broadcast each week directly via iTunes by clicking here

Japanese High School Empty Classroom

Op-ed: Facts show Utah schools don’t need a big tax increase

Originally published in The Salt Lake Tribune.

It has been wittily remarked that there are three kinds of falsehood: the first is a “fib,” the second is a downright lie, and the third and most aggravated is statistics.

— Letter to the editor of the National Observer (1891)

This saying should cross our minds when we’re reading public opinion polls, and recent polls suggesting broad support for higher income taxes are a case in point.

It is not uncommon for people to answer one way in a hypothetical poll but act differently in reality. As a recent example, some speculate that many voters nationally voiced support for Hillary Clinton or another candidate to pollsters, but then cast their vote for President-elect Donald Trump. Utah pollsters have repeatedly found high levels of support for Medicaid expansion and income tax hikes, but Utah voters continue to re-elect legislators who oppose these policies.

Perhaps many public opinion polls aren’t all they’re made out to be in the media.

Polls conducted by Dan Jones for Utah Policy on the topic of public school funding have reported that large majorities of Utahns support what is described to them as “a 7/8 of 1 percent increase” in income taxes — an increase that appears minuscule. But the mathematical fact is that raising Utah’s income tax rate by 7/8 of one percentage point (from 5 to 5 7/8 percent) means that the amount of income taxes each Utahn pays goes up by close to 20 percent.

How much the income tax hike would increase Utahns’ income tax liability is, rather oddly, missing from these opinion polls. The omission of such basic information on the issue may lead respondents to believe that the relative financial impact on them is insignificant. Another recent poll, also by Dan Jones and Associates, demonstrated how much language affects results. The clearer it was in a poll question that the respondent would pay more in their own taxes, the less likely they were to support funding increases for public schools.

But there is a silver lining to public opinion polls – even if they don’t present the whole picture. Their publication creates an opportunity to seek for more informed, thoughtful and elevated dialogue on the issue.

When it comes to education funding, dialogue should focus on whether education spending is meeting the unique needs of actual children – not whether we feel good about how many tax dollars are being spent.

Newly released data by the “Nation’s Report Card” (the federally sponsored National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP) is informative. Utah’s eighth-graders led the nation in science proficiency in 2015; Utah’s fourth-graders significantly trailed only one state in science proficiency. Utah’s eighth-graders were significantly behind only four states and fourth-graders behind only three states in reading proficiency. In math proficiency, the comparable figure was five states for Utah’s eighth-graders and fourth-graders.

In other words, Utah’s elementary and middle-school students are among the nation’s leaders on this test in most basic subjects.

Utah high schoolers also show positive outcomes. Utah’s graduation rate of nearly 85 percent is above the national average. All racial, ethnic and economic subgroups have made graduation gains in recent years, although Utah still needs to close racial and economic graduation rate gaps. Utah leads the nation in the number of students passing an Advanced Placement exam (earning a 3, 4 or 5), with 66 percent of its takers earning those scores compared with the national average at 55.9 percent. Utah high school participation in AP exams jumped 6 percent this year, and since last year there has been a 10 percent jump in students participating who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.

There’s always work to be done to make sure our education system is meeting the unique academic needs of every individual, but these facts do not paint a dire picture that calls for a 20 percent hike of Utahns’ state income taxes. This is why Utah’s education funding debate requires a more informed and elevated debate than opinion polls can create.

Never underestimate the power of doing good

The true measure of a person’s life is in direct proportion to the lasting impact and influence they have on others. John Wesley said, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

Every day there are opportunities large and small to do good and make a difference. It can be as simple as a smile to the clerk at the register, letting a car merge ahead of you in traffic, opening the door for someone, making a call to a neighbor, sending a handwritten letter to someone who has made an impact on your life, giving a generous tip to a waiter or waitress, thanking a spouse or parent for all they do, reaching out to someone you have had a disagreement with, giving a compliment – and the list goes on and on and on.

Never underestimate the power and far-reaching influence of doing good!

Achievement in all its forms, along with real financial success, is usually nothing more than a natural byproduct of doing good. And those who do all the good they can, by all the means they can – are those who not only accomplish the most, but are also the most happy, content, confident and energized people on the planet.

It is a healthy exercise to stop regularly and ask yourself how you did in the “do good” department. Did you make doing good part of your day? Did you strategically go out and strive to make a difference during your week or month? Were you conscious enough of the people around you to know how and when you could do something for them?

Doing good is more a mindset than it is a goal or a project – it is a way of living. Doing good, while making an enormous difference for those you serve, will in the end, do more for you than it will for those you may assist.

I have long said that it is easy to make a dollar, but it is a challenge to make a difference.

As we approach Christmas and the holiday season, all of us at Sutherland Institute wish to express our sincere gratitude for all you do to make our community great and America extraordinary. It is indeed the doers who make the difference and epitomize what Christmas is really all about. In the words of Him whose birth and life we celebrate – we should become “doers of the word and not hearers only.” To all the doers we say – thank you.

In the days ahead, remember to do all the good you can, in all the ways you can … as long as you ever can – and you will be able to look back in the years ahead at a life that had meaning while leaving a legacy that matters.

For Sutherland Institute, this is Boyd Matheson. Thanks for engaging – because principle matters.

This post is an edited transcript of Principle Matters, a weekly radio commentary broadcast on several radio stations across the country. The podcast can be found below.

Receive this broadcast each week directly via iTunes by clicking here

Around three years old boy in an orange bow tie and glasses, wearing blue shirt. He is smiling while giving you thumbs up over baby-blue backgorund, behind the brown table, left hand up on the table. Photo was taken by Canon DSLR.

3 reasons to be optimistic about future education policy

By Miriam Merrill

This year has brought significant changes. We have a new president-elect and a newly named secretary of education. As we approach 2017, Sutherland Institute hopes to see significant changes in education policy – restoring policy-making power to the state and to local school districts as well as bold reform like parent choice and equitable education for students with different needs.

While any federal role in education is suspect, we can say that the appointment of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education holds some promise for the hopes listed above. Education policy leaders should not stop working to make sure a new administration makes good ideas a reality, but here are three reasons why we can be optimistic about upcoming education policy.

1. DeVos is a strong advocate for school choice.

In an interview for Philanthropy magazine, DeVos said that over any other issue, she is “most focused on educational choice. … We think of the educational choice movement as involving many parts: vouchers and tax credits, certainly, but also virtual schools, magnet schools, homeschooling, and charter schools.”

DeVos currently serves as Chairman for American Federation For Children, which is an influential group for school choice advocacy that has aided 50,000 children in Florida attending a school of their choice. Additionally, she has served on boards for both Children First America and the American Education Reform Council, charities that expand educational choice. Inevitably, parental control goes hand-in-hand with school choice. When asked how she would define success, DeVos said, “That all parents, regardless of their ZIP code, have had the opportunity to choose the best educational setting for their children.”

2. DeVos is a strong advocate for low-income families.

DeVos’ work through the American Federation For Children has been specifically “geared to answer the needs of low income parents and students.” After significant involvement with charity work at a school that served many low-income families, DeVos said that her family became particularly committed to helping low-income families. About that experience, she said, “If we could choose the right school for our kids, it only seemed fair that they could do the same for theirs.”

Additionally, Betsy and her husband, Dick, have been co-chairs of the Education Freedom Fund since 1993. The organization serves to provide low-income families in Michigan with scholarships used to attend a private school of their choice.

3. DeVos is a strong advocate for real education reform.

On her personal website, DeVos says, “The status quo is not acceptable. I am committed to transforming our education system into the best in the world.” She also serves on the board of directors for Excel in Ed, an organization dedicated to reforming education practices in various ways including digital learning, school choice, and high accountability standards.

Sutherland Institute believes that education policy decision-making power is best in the hands of those closest to the student. Ultimately, we hope that a change in leadership priorities will lead to a reduction in federal intervention in the area of education, a greater emphasis on local control, a renewed effort to provide equitable education for diverse learners, and greater support for parental choice.

Miriam Merrill served a fall 2016 internship with Sutherland Institute.

Rethinking conventional ideas in education

Every human being is created to do great things. But each has different talents, weaknesses, and interests, and each learns in ways particular to him or her. Sutherland Institute believes that keeping in mind the unique potential of individuals can help us create an ideal education system. We understand that ideas have consequences.

Our philosophy contends that to create an educational system that meets the unique needs of children, we must first combat three widespread ideas that are holding us back: (1) all students are the same, (2) schooling is primarily about social and political objectives, and (3) the government is responsible for educating children.

This paper describes how these ideas stem from popular philosophies and traditions but says that asking big bold questions about our approach to education can lead us to a change in thinking and new ideas. In doing so, we can transform education to meet the needs and potential of the individual student.

You can find the full paper here.

Education System

Op-ed: Utahns will invest in education, but not in same old system

Originally published in The Salt Lake Tribune.

The results of a recent survey from Envision Utah have been referenced as a sign that Utahns don’t understand public school funding. Some are pointing to that reading of the survey to make the case for raising income taxes on Utahns.

From a strategic standpoint, this makes a lot of sense. How do you convince policymakers, who have repeatedly been re-elected on a platform of protecting taxpayers from higher taxes, to take more money from taxpayers? One answer: Tell elected officials that voters are uninformed and don’t understand what they’re voting about.

But rather than question voters’ intelligence when it comes to education funding, we should first question our own understanding of the issue, and think about the environment in which voters find themselves.

According to the survey, 71 percent of Utahns believe that K-12 education funding is too low. And yet, 50 percent of Utahns are either unwilling or unsure about their willingness to pay for education funding.

Information could be at the root of this outcome, but it is just as likely that Utahns hold serious reservations about what is happening in education.

Our public education system is at a crossroads. We must decide, through our elected leaders, whether we want public schools that are invested in the past or are investing in the future. This decision is largely one of focus.

Being invested in the past means focusing on keeping our schools firmly in their 20th century model, designed for factories and farms, not for unique individuals in a high-tech, highly collaborative world. This leads to so-called reforms that follow a familiar pattern: raise taxes, spend more taxpayer dollars, adopt centralized government education programs and keep unions happy. These ideas appease powerful political interests, but are proven failures in producing the education outcomes and academic achievement that Utahns want for their children.

Investing in the future means focusing on meeting the unique needs of children. That requires exploring the possibilities for public education in the 21st century, including innovations in teaching and technology that can unlock every child’s innate desire to know and understand. It asks more of education reform — to not simply rely on money, but to entertain bold new ideas that break the status quo. It also leads to the conclusion that centralized academic decision-making is strikingly odd in a world where you can customize everything important in your life — from your diet to your doctor to your Netflix recommendations.

Utahns see many current and would-be education leaders investing in the future by embracing opportunities to promote engaged learning through innovation. But they also see these leaders and our public schools being held back by those who seem satisfied to remain invested in the past. In that situation, it is no wonder that Utahns would believe public school funding is too low, and yet be hesitant to pay more for an education system that balks at leaving behind a structure that is becoming irrelevant.

Are Utahns willing to pay more for that system when they recognize its success is being held up notwithstanding the money they invest? Not likely.

If we are serious about improving public education outcomes in Utah, then we should start asking courageous questions about our system instead of blaming voters for not understanding the issues. Are we invested in the past, or are we investing in the future? Getting the right answer to that question will have a far greater effect on positive public school outcomes than raising Utahns’ income taxes.

Why we cheer National School Choice Week

school choiceThis week is National School Choice Week. School choice – the freedom of parents to move their child from a system of learning that is failing them to one that better meets their individual needs – has reaped many benefits for children and families across the state and the nation. This is especially true for parents and children living in poverty or in areas with failing public schools, whose need for the freedom to pursue other options is the greatest and where the potential benefit to society is the highest.

In honor of National School Choice Week, we recommend that you take a few minutes to browse the new Educational Freedom Wiki, just released by Cato Institute. This wiki explores and explains the problems in the public education system that create the need for school choice, the promise that school choice extends to children who are in failing schools and being left behind by the public education status quo, and policy ideas for offering that promise to more children and families.

As a state, Utah is doing moderately well in the arena of school choice – we are far from the worst state, but we are far from the best as well. In general, parents in most areas of the state have at least a few options to meet their child’s learning needs, whether home school, private school, digital learning, public charter school or traditional public school.

But many families in Utah still lack genuine educational opportunities, due to difficult financial, geographic or other circumstances. Read more

School Trek: The Next Generation

The Country School, by Winslow Homer

The Country School, by Winslow Homer

For those who care about improving public education for Utah families and children, National Affairs recently published an intriguing essay about Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) titled “The Next Step in School Choice.”

This essay, referencing Milton and Rose Friedman, captures well the realities of human nature, psychology and behavior that the public education system has generally failed to grasp (and that therefore plague that system):

People can either spend their own money or someone else’s money, and they can either spend it on themselves or on someone else. The Friedmans argued that people generally have a stronger incentive to economize when spending their own money than when spending someone else’s money. Likewise, people generally have a stronger incentive to maximize value when spending money on themselves than when spending on someone else.

The lack of incentive to reduce costs or maximize value is particularly acute when the spender does not know whose money he is spending or on whom he is spending it. For instance, a person is more likely to purchase a lavish dinner with a corporate expense account than when a close friend is paying. Likewise, someone is less likely to maximize value when buying a gift for the office holiday gift exchange than when buying a gift for a significant other. In the latter scenario, the spender’s knowledge of what would provide the greatest value is also considerably higher when he knows the recipient well.

Public-school officials, like all government bureaucrats, primarily engage in the worst kind of spending: They spend other people’s money on children who are not their own. As competent and well-meaning as they may be, their incentives to economize and maximize value are simply not as strong as those of parents spending their own money on their own children.

Recognizing and addressing this human reality is one of the major purposes of ESAs, which deposit taxpayer dollars into savings accounts for parents to use to provide for their child’s education – through home school, public school, private school, private tutors or some combination of these, depending on the child’s need – and allowing parents to save any leftover money to use for their child’s college education. In short, ESAs allow a child and those closest to a child to tailor that child’s path for learning and education according to their personal, individual needs and give parents an incentive to seek out the greatest value for the least cost, so they can save toward the significant costs of higher education.

Some in the past have opposed ESAs in Utah because they don’t think an ESA system is workable in practice. But in reality, two states – Arizona and Florida – have established working ESA systems. In the face of this evidence, to argue it can’t be done in Utah is to argue that Utah’s education leaders don’t have the competence to handle what other states are already doing. And that argument does not seem based in reason or reality.

Hopefully, Utah policymakers will look past the fear-based arguments of special interests in public education and support legislation to create ESAs. Children in Utah deserve the freedom and joy in learning that Education Savings Accounts can bring.

State school board selection: The ‘partisan elections are unconstitutional’ argument

800px-University_at_Buffalo_voting_boothAfter federal Judge Clark Waddoups’s recent ruling that Utah’s current state board election system is unconstitutional, a new argument from advocates of nonpartisan state school board elections has begun to make the rounds: that partisan state school board elections are barred by the Utah Constitution. While this argument represents a novel reading of the state Constitution, and certainly provides something new for talking heads to discuss, it has not been accompanied by much fact or substantive reasoning to back it up.

The constitutional provision in question (Article X, Section 8) reads: “No religious or partisan test or qualification shall be required as a condition of employment, admission, or attendance in the state education systems.” In prosecuting their argument, the nonpartisan election advocates have simply quoted or cited this provision and moved on without further explanation, evidently assuming this citation closes all possibility of debate to any reasonable person. I mean, what part of “no partisan test” don’t you understand, right?

But for the common good and for the sake of free society, deeper thought and more substantive consideration than that is required for determining such an important policy and constitutional issue.

The plain language of Article X, Section 8 makes clear that it only applies to three areas of public education: employment, admission, or attendance. Obviously, state school board members are not seeking to be admitted to or attend public schools, so the only constitutional leg left for this argument to stand on is the area of employment.

So the relevant question becomes: Are we electing school employees when we vote for our state school board representative?

The common sense answer is “no.” Voters don’t go to the ballot box to choose their favorite education bureaucrat. Rather, they are voting for a person who is willing to take time and effort away from work and family to help administer the public school system — not as a source of employment, but as a public service to their community and state. Of course, we also recognize the financial difficulties that this service would create if it were left purely as a charitable donation of time, not to mention the implications for free society if only the wealthy were able to serve. Therefore, society has decided as a matter of policy to provide some basic financial reimbursement to school board members to help more people be able to serve. But the presence of modest financial reimbursement does not lead to the conclusion that state school board members are public school employees. Read more