Presentation by Christine Cooke, education policy director at Sutherland Institute, to Utah legislators on interim day, Aug. 24, 2017.
Utah has an important opportunity right now – it’s the opportunity to guide the focus of our current education reform debate from money to students. This important moment is precipitated by a national discussion about the status quo and a statewide call for more funding through an income and sales tax hike. It’s our response to this moment that will set the stage for how we approach education for our children in the future.
The big question: What will Utah do to reform education? Will it be more money through a tax hike, or will it be more than that?
Sutherland’s message today can be boiled down to this request: Let us make sure that any education reform debate – language and policy – is focused on the student, not simply money. And when we do discuss money, let it be coupled with very intentional questions, like: How will this be spent to maximize the learning of the individual student? How are we innovating to make sure that funds are spent in a way that reaches the one?
I have not yet met an education advocate who didn’t want a bright future for students – either on the right or left, those who normally agree with me or those who don’t. Education draws out the most moral part of people because it deals with children and the potential of each person.
I have also not yet met an education advocate who didn’t want some type of education reform. Reform is a positive but nebulous word. There is a joke that if you poll the populace about whether they want Q-tip reform, you find almost unanimous support.
Sutherland Institute has repeatedly said that education reform is about more than dollar figures. Research shows little if any correlation between per-pupil spending and student outcomes. We know that exponential federal spending has resulted in largely stagnated outcomes in the past few decades. It’s how we spend money that matters most.
So, what will Utah do to reform education?
On the one hand, if Utah rejects the tax hike, have we won? Have we moved the ball forward in education? Have we given the individual student more options? Have we given educators greater space to innovate, to be the professionals we’ve hired them to be and that they long to be? If we defeat the tax hike, does the student with dyslexia who is struggling in school have real options to address their disability, or do they only have 15 extra minutes on a test? Have we stepped away from standardized education and tests in the name of equity, or have we given each student an equitable education through choices that meet their needs?
On the other hand, if Utah votes for the tax hike, have we won? Will $700 million make schools suddenly better able to meet individual needs? Will it result in a culture shift that focuses on the individual? Will public education be better fitted to the pace of the child who needs more time, the one who is ready to move on, or the one who needs a different environment? If we embrace more taxes for public education, will schools be suddenly more motivated to innovate with a tax hike proposal that never mentions the words “innovate,” “innovation” or “innovator” in its text? If we get enough funding to go from a national ranking of 51st to 50th or even 50th to 49th in per-pupil spending amounts, are we reformed?
Either way, we should not stop this education discussion at whether a tax hike initiative is successful or not. This moment is bigger than that.
Some ask, what is innovation? The simplest definition is to “make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.” Others have said innovation is about breaking the rules, and as a legislator it’s about making new rules.
One important illustration of the power of innovation comes from a recent article about American educators who went to learn about education policy from Finland. The main takeaway was this: “There’s no secret to education, there’s no secret formula that they’re doing right and we’re doing wrong, they’re just trying new things and being innovative and giving teachers more power.”
Sutherland’s position on education policy is that human beings are magnificent – we are created to learn. But we are each different. Education is much broader than the K-12, or P-16, system we have created. It’s an innate process fixed on the learning and potential of the individual. Emerson said: “The secret to education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do … he only holds the key to his own secret.”
Sutherland’s position on a tax hike for education falls under the banner “No taxation without innovation.” We want to talk about how we plan to improve education for Utahns if we are going to ask them for more money.
As Sutherland President Boyd Matheson mentioned, part of Sutherland Institute’s mission is to facilitate elevated dialogue and convene those who want to have a real discussion.
In keeping with this spirit, Sutherland has created opportunities to do just that in this moment. We have a website, the online counterpart to the discussion about innovations. The website is titled “No Taxation Without Innovation” and is found at www.ourstudentsnow.org. It includes fast facts about funding and outcomes and the tax hike; it hosts articles and videos on the topic; and, importantly, it serves as a site for people to explore and submit innovations, which we continue to grow over time. In the first week of launching we had many submissions, and we continue to have discussions with other leaders around the state. People are hungry for new ideas.
In addition to the website, we are hosting in-person conversations through a series of four policy panel events that discuss how innovative ideas are addressing certain hot topics across the state. You’ll see at your seats we’ve provided a “Save the Date” card for the first event in our series. The first event is titled “Innovations for Solving the Teacher Shortage.” We plan to take up other issues from the perspective of innovation, including intergenerational poverty, education choice, and special needs students.
We invite legislators both to submit ideas for the website and to attend our events, as well as let others know about these opportunities to join the discussion. This is an important way to make sure we discuss real education reform, not simply say yes or no to a tax hike next year. Because a significant chunk of the bills that will be introduced in January will be education related, and because efforts by the tax hike initiative will continue through next year, we can be sure that this education discussion will continue for some time.
We ask that Utah’s education reform not get lost in dollar figures or per-pupil spending amounts. We ask that we take this opportunity to talk about more.
And that we answer the question: How is Utah going to reform education?