Give them what they want

by Paul Mero

Okay, let me sound like the conservative heretic I am often accused of being: Conservatives should let the Our Schools Now initiative run its course. Don’t oppose it. To publicly and vociferously oppose the Our Schools Now initiative, Utah conservatives will look stupid, sound stupid and most certainly act stupid. The reason is simple: Utah conservatives, by and large, don’t understand the playing field in Utah education. They emphasize what doesn’t matter at the expense of what really does.

We ignore the most important lesson of the 2007 voucher fight: Policy cannot get ahead of culture. First, Utah conservatives are enamored and obsessed with school choice. Just like the argument that “it’s not how much money you spend that matters; it’s how you spend it,” it’s not a choice that matters, it’s the choice that matters. And, frankly, Utah parents have all the choices they need. They can send their kids to public school. They can send their kids to a public charter school. They can send their kids to a private school. They can home school. They can do online schooling. Choice exists. What doesn’t always exist is a parent either willing or in a position to make the best choices for their child. The key to a good education is an attentive parent and that’s the starting point for a successful culture of education.

Second, at some point, in attempt after attempt to use policy to override culture, Utah conservatives need to stop. Our political loses only seal a culture of education we oppose. Stop losing and start winning by giving the education crowd what they want. If the claim of more money will raise the level and quality of education for even struggling students, let them have it. Leave them without excuse. Would it be costly? Yes. Would anything change for the kids? No. But the struggle over the culture of education in Utah is not over money or academic results. The struggle is over opportunity, human flourishing and happiness in the lives of these kids.

Because of all of our liberty and choice rhetoric, Utah conservatives forget that test scores are not why we believe so deeply in educating rising generations, especially the most disadvantaged among them. Does anyone really give a rat’s behind how a child tests, ultimately? No. We want the rising generations to flourish, to find happiness, and to share their good fortune with their posterity and the less fortunate of their neighbors. Do you think a teacher goes to work every day because of the pay or some aggregate test score? Any real teacher worth his or her salt, just as with any parent worth his or her salt, only wants that student, that child, to flourish.

My point is that attacking the Our Schools Now initiative misses the mark. Sure, maybe they miss the mark too. But that is no excuse for those of us who claim to know better.

My work on intergenerational poverty in Utah has revealed to me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that money and test scores are secondary to break the cycle of poverty for many Utah children. There is no amount of money, no benchmark for test scores, that can help a child flourish who lacks the non-cognitive skills to succeed. If Our Schools Now were smart, they would push their initiative directed at the 57,000+ Utah children mired in intergenerational poverty. That’s a good use of money and Utah test scores would increase dramatically (if that’s what everyone is looking for).

The lesson here for Utah conservatives is to focus your efforts on human flourishing, not ideological knee-jerk reactions to everything status quo. Find your heart for your neighbors in need. Forget efficiency in education. There isn’t any. And, frankly, if Utah schools have proven anything, they have proven what they can achieve with fewer dollars than any other state. So get off your hobby horse about choice and innovation and start focusing on human beings. You’re worried about taxes as if they’re a new thing. We get the hell taxed out of us. Follow your own advice: Spend it wisely. And that means spending it in ways that actually serve rising generations to flourish.

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