OpEd: By its actions, Utah shows it undervalues its children

Several years ago I was invited, by the head of a private school, to enter the teaching profession. I am a working artist and, having seen colleagues distracted from their art by their teaching, had previously avoided that route. I do enjoy working with kids, though, and had an interest in sharing the sense of wonder and powerful expression that come through creating art. I am also deeply concerned with the way our culture educates our children and wanted to be a part of changing that.

This idealism also led me to change to working with a public school. I was not naive to the difficulties of teaching, nor to the bureaucratic frustrations that accompany it. However, as much as I love watching young eyes light up with discovery, I have often questioned if it was worth it. It is no wonder that around 30 percent of new teachers leave the profession within the first five years.

By now we are familiar with the facts: Utah spends less money per pupil than any other state in our nation. I have heard this defended by many politicians who claim that it is because we are frugal and efficient. We can also hold up the reports of certain tests to boast that our students perform better than some. Is that what we really want for our children? To perform better than some? We don’t settle for that in touting our economic success, or even our snow quality! “Ski Utah, our snow is better than some other places.”

Our state leaders, like any politicians, will wax eloquent about their concern for the welfare of children. In reality, professionals are given respect according to the age of the clients they work with. The younger the person they teach or treat, the less respect and earnings they receive. This is true for doctors (specialists down to pediatricians), for lawyers (corporate litigators down to child welfare) and, yes, teachers (university professors down to lowly, underpaid pre-school teachers). The universal claim that we value children simply does not come through in our culture or our public policy. Our leaders claim repeatedly that our children are a priority, and yet their policy decisions don’t support this.

The old adage bears out, “Put your money where your mouth is.” Our Legislature has set up a series of expectations and guidelines to encourage and facilitate the pursuit of excellence in our education. Standards for teacher training and benchmarks for student performance have been put in place to ensure this. Good, strong words. It is, as usual, time for them to back these words up with action, which in this case, means money.

How many times will we have to hear that if Utah’s students are to be competitive on a changing, global economic stage, they need the best support that we can give them? Or that if we want to attract businesses to our state, we need world-class schools for the families of the skilled employees they want to hire?

Our Senate president, Wayne Niederhauser, has been overheard during budget wrangling on the hill saying, “We steal from education all the time.” I’ll end with a different quote from him from The Salt Lake Tribune just a couple of days ago. “If we want to be the No. 1 state on education, we can’t [just] fund it adequately,” he said. “We have to fund it more than adequately, and I hope the Legislature will address that.”

Amen to that.

Nathan Florence is an artist and board member of the Alliance for a Better Utah.

See the OpEd in the Salt Lake Tribune here.

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