Reader responses to my most recent blog posting, “Too many (underpaid) teachers?” followed a predictable path. If you didn’t see the post, I quoted from a Wall Street Journal op-ed:
Since 1970, the public school workforce has roughly doubled—to 6.4 million from 3.3 million—and two-thirds of those new hires are teachers or teachers’ aides. Over the same period, enrollment rose by a tepid 8.5%. Employment has thus grown 11 times faster than enrollment. If we returned to the student-to-staff ratio of 1970, American taxpayers would save about $210 billion annually in personnel costs.
Some readers responded, quite accurately, that Utah class sizes and teacher/student ratios remain significantly higher than most other states. As one of my frequent commentators asked me earlier this week, “what does this have to do with Utah”?
It’s a fair question. I’ve repeatedly acknowledged that Utah doesn’t always reflect national educational trends, and certainly Utah educators are quick to remind us of the state’s larger class sizes, lower teacher salaries, and rock bottom per capita student spending.
But here’s a question I’d like to pose in return. Should Utah be striving to become more like other states, just as many of these states are hitting a fiscal wall and rethinking educational policies that have increased spending without measurably improving student achievement? Do we want to march toward the crowd just as many of its leaders are turning around? Or should we see if once again Utah “exceptionalism” can prove an asset instead of a barrier to improving education?
Most of us are familiar with the state’s fiscal realities. In terms of per student spending, Utah ranks as a thorough cheapskate. In terms of per taxpayer burden, the state comes a lot closer to the middle. Utah is not an especially high income state, in part because so many families rely on a single income. But while Utahns don’t produce as much tax revenue as some states, they produce a whole lot more kids. In other words, fiscal realities reflect life choices that I’m guessing most of this newspaper’s readers embrace.
The tax revenue picture is now looking up, not least because high tech companies are flooding into the state. This economic boom could mean great news for Utah education. These new employers and employees will generate significant tax revenue. They’re also going to care about good schools. Having recently moved from Salt Lake City to Palo Alto, California – where attack helicopter parents regularly lay siege to the schools – I can attest to this feature of the high tech sector. (Some of you teachers who’ve been complaining about parent indifference may want to be careful what you wish for!)
But Utah isn’t going to continue attracting new jobs by imitating California’s bloated public sector, decaying public services, and deteriorating tax base.
Rather than viewing these fiscal and political realities as barriers to improving Utah education, I’d like to suggest that we see Utah as potentially entering a time of rare opportunity. Unlike many states, Utah does not confront shrinking enrollments or crippling debt. Leaders of both political parties claim that improving education is a top priority. Given Utah voters’ family focus, I’m inclined to believe them. The taxpayers and the legislature will probably generate some new education dollars, especially if they can be persuaded that their money will be well spent.
So how should that money be spent?
One answer, maybe the most popular answer, is: hire more teachers and bring down class sizes.
Utah has taken some steps in that direction already, at least according to Utah State Office of Education data. But the research on class size shows surprisingly little correlation with student achievement, at least above the very early grades. While selective investment in reducing class size may be a good use of resources, I’d like to propose some other candidates for increased spending. Or at least I will in follow-on posts. (Just to put up one shield against the inevitable slings and arrows, let me note that my first candidate will be higher teacher salaries.)
To be continued.