Originally published in the Deseret News.
Another legislative session has come to a close after making some significant changes to Utah education.
Public schools received the bulk of new state money, as usual. Beyond that, the Utah Legislature changed the school grading system, placed regulations on the Utah High School Activities Association, and created a string of education bills aimed at tackling intergenerational poverty — including salary bonuses for teachers with a record of excellence who work in high-poverty schools.
Some see this week as an ending, but we ought to view it as a beginning. The big question is, where should we go from here?
At Sutherland Institute, we hope upcoming education policy expands education choice, increases local control and recognizes the individuality of each student.
Utah needs more practical education options for parents. This is not code for a specific policy, but an environment where parents have a sufficient number of options to meaningfully exercise their basic constitutional right to guide their child’s education.
Our state has open enrollment laws, charter schools and the legal right to homeschool. But in a 21st-century world of customization, this brief list of choices does not represent the full menu of options Utah could provide parents. This raises the question then-candidate Abraham Lincoln posed to Judge Stephen Douglas in 1858: “Do you support the Constitution if, knowing or believing there is a right established under it which needs specific legislation, you withhold that legislation?”
For instance, the Legislature could expand the number of children who qualify for a policy like the current Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship, which allows parents of special-needs children to attend a private school that meets their child’s specific needs. Our state could implement flexible-spending accounts, which allow parents to use a portion of their education tax dollars to craft an education fitted to the child. This could include personal tutors, special education therapies, or other creative options.
We could encourage district innovations, making open enrollment more meaningful by giving parents different offerings. Students deserve the best — this means they deserve options.
We need real local control — the ability of local school leaders to make decisions for their district or school. Local control is a principle our state reveres in public debates. It’s rooted in the truth that those closest to the students are in the best position to make education decisions.
But after years of policies like No Child Left Behind, federal waivers for academic standards, Dear Colleague letters, unpopular statewide tests, or difficult-to-navigate public input processes, some wonder whether we practice what we preach.
This year, the Legislature briefly saw a bill that would have allowed local school districts to replace certain state requirements with local policies along with a requirement to evaluate their successes and failures.
Giving districts this kind of autonomy is important. At the very least, this proposal should serve as a launching point to discuss how serious Utahns are about local control, which requires that we be comfortable with the inevitable byproducts of innovation. Liberty demands that we give people space to try, even though the consequences can be messy.
The good news is that consequences are far less egregious — and widespread — when local leaders get an education policy wrong than when the state or federal governments do.
Education policy should reflect the reality that every individual is unique. Philosophically this means our system is about the student, not the class or the school. For too long we have allowed the administrative ease of adults to drive our education policy toward standardization — the one-size-fits-all approach that stigmatizes and fails many kids. We should abandon this stifling approach for the sake of those who need it most.
The Legislature made significant progress with early education and college savings programs tailored to the unique experience of children of intergenerational poverty, and Utah should build on that momentum. We can continue to rethink how an individual earns school credit — whether it’s seat time or mastery of skills and subjects. But developing an individualized approach to education is as much about culture as it is policy.
Congratulations to our civic process in a busy legislative session. But for those who care about where we’re headed next, it’s not over. We’re just getting started.