An Open Letter to Parents, Utah Legislators, and Newly Elected State School Board Members Concerning Education Legislation from a Public School Educator

Elementary School Students Rasing Hands in ClassroomA few years ago I had the opportunity to lead a training for some teachers in the LA Unified School District.   The minute I set foot on campus, it was obvious that I wasn’t in Utah anymore. The training venue looked more like a lockdown facility than any high school I was accustomed to back home. The teachers were nice enough, and the training went as expected.

While eating lunch with the teachers, I was asked about the school where I taught. I proudly talked about my district and the work happening in my school to help all students learn when I was interrupted by a veteran teacher from the English Department. He inquired, “Do you want to know the difference between where you teach and where we teach?” Before I had a chance to respond he replied, “You have hope. You believe that what you do actually matters. We don’t.”

Although this experience was nearly 8 years ago, its impact is just as poignant today as it was then. I daresay that no one goes into the field of education for money, especially not in Utah. Educators are drawn to the profession because they love to teach children, and they actually believe that what they do matters. I am no different.

However, given the current educational climate in Utah, that hope and belief are starting to wane. Each year I watch with fear and trepidation as the legislative session begins. I watch as new policies are passed and the targets to measure student progress are moved and changed and districts, schools, and teachers are left to find a way, with no additional funding mind you, to comply with new laws and policies. We comply and come up with innovative solutions in the best interest of children, only to have the game changed again before we actually get to see plans fully implemented and student achievement increase. How many times can this happen before there is a mass exodus from the profession? It’s already happening, and it is no wonder why.

An individual that enters the field of education for all the right reasons can only take the constant scrutiny, lack of competitive pay, scant resources, and overall professional disregard for so long. Many of those who seek to legislate changes in education have admittedly spent little to NO time in public schools. They have a very limited and misinformed view of what actually transpires in classrooms. Our districts, schools, and teachers are focused on helping all children learn at high levels. It feels as if a majority of the powers that be in the House, Senate, and State School Board care more about power and politics than student learning.

Consequently, I have been disheartened by some of the legislation currently being discussed concerning public education. So I did what any lawmaker would tell you to do, and I along with a group of likeminded parents/educators contacted a local legislator. We started with the newly elected state senator from the area where I am an elementary school principal and where a majority of the individuals in the group live. He agreed to meet with us just after Christmas to discuss our concerns. We were prepared. We had facts and figures to support our positions, and when it was all said and done, we felt like it had been a good meeting.
Imagine our surprise and disappointment when this very same legislator introduced a bill this session that is in complete opposition to what we discussed.

In addition, as our State School Board participated in a “legislative exercise” of “hypothetically” cutting education spending by 2%, many of those who met with the state senator reached out to our newly elected State School Board member and begged him not to vote for these cuts (whether real or hypothetical) as they would hurt children. Despite our pleadings, he ultimately voted for these cuts.

These lawmakers and many others in the state of Utah wave the flag of “local control” and refer to it as our Constitutional right. Yet I have never felt so powerless as a citizen in my life. I have attended my caucus meetings. I have been nominated to be a delegate, but given my propublic education stance, I have not had the opportunity to serve in that capacity (lost by a coin toss). I, not unlike many citizens in Utah, study the issues and contact my representatives, only to find that unless I’m a delegate, or even better a precinct chair, that my voice means virtually nothing to my representatives. How is this local control?

The majority is held under the thumb of the minority that has a stronghold on the caucus system. To make matters worse, educators are limited in what they can say, when they can say it, even by the means in which they say it and as a result, don’t say as much as they could or should. Not to mention that teachers are noticeably absent from the Capitol during the legislative session because they are busy teaching children while the landscape of education is being changed without them.

Since no one I’ve contacted seems to be interested in what I or any other proponent of public education has to say concerning new educational policies/legislation, I’ll lay it out here:

● Partisan school board elections are not in the best interest of children. Our State School Board as well as a many local school boards are already populated with a high percentage of the predominant Utah political party. However, the kind of candidate from this party that is vetted through the caucus system tends to be extreme and to represent only a small subset of students and schools as opposed to all students and all schools. Doing what is best for students should not be held hostage by political party affiliation.

● The “legislative exercise,” referenced above, put to the State School Board to scrutinize and cut USOE budgets by 2% is bad for kids. Though we were reassured it was just a hypothetical, it is never in the best interest of students to make cuts (hypothetical or real) to education budgets. Sure, in a year of surplus it is easy absorb those cuts under the guise of additional funding, but what happens when the surplus is gone? What happens when there is no way to replace the items that have been cut? Districts are already scrambling for funds, and if these cuts come to pass, it will inevitably lead to local tax increases just to keep current funding in traditional public schools. There is no scenario in which cutting the budget for school nurses, transportation, arts programs, etc. is a win for children.

● In addition, the underlying objective of this 2% cut “exercise” is ultimately to have local school districts assume 75% of the funding for charter school students. Taxpayer dollars diverted into charter schools from districts are not overseen by elected officials, are not regulated in their use, and their uses are not transparent or reported to the community. This is problematic on many levels. Also, roughly 11% of the students in Utah attend charter schools. To place the burden of paying 75% of the cost to educate this 11% on districts at the expense of the nearly 90% of Utah students that actually attend those districts is unacceptable. It would appear that there is an obvious bias on the part of some members of the State School Board as well as the legislators that suggested the “exercise” in favor of charter schools as opposed to traditional public schools/districts. (Update: As of 2/4/15 the Public Education Appropriations Committee met and recommended a 50% change in the local replacement funding for charter schools, not 75%. Lawmakers removed school nurses, elementary arts education, and a few other proposed State School Board recommendations from the list of potential cuts.)

● Expanding the authorization of charter schools to municipalities is problematic on many levels. First, the evidence on the effectiveness of charter schools at this point in time does not merit expansion. Charter school performance is no greater than that of public schools. Teacher turnover is at its highest rate in charters. As mentioned before, unelected charter boards have oversight of millions of dollars of taxpayer
money. Truly this just appears to be another instance in which lawmakers manifest their obvious bias to charters offering them expansion without compelling evidence as to their effectiveness and without accountability to taxpayers for how their dollars are being spent.

● The Legislature’s unwillingness to even consider a .5% tax increase to fully fund public education is heartbreaking. Utah is nearly the bottom of the list nationally when it comes to the amount of money spent per pupil. We do remarkably well considering, but imagine what we could do with more resources, competitive wages for teachers, smaller class sizes, greater access to technology, professional development, etc? What we fail to provide for students now, we will inevitably make up for in contributions to other societal programs such as welfare and/or the Department of Corrections later on. I’d much prefer my tax dollars being used in a proactive manner than a reactive one.

In the words of Karl G. Maeser, “…with the change in our political condition, commonly designated as “the division upon party lines,” there has arisen a danger to the welfare of our schools far more threatening than all the miserable features of our past educational stages put together. I refer to the introduction of politics into the management of our educational system.”

Such it is in our time as well. So much has been said about the perceived infiltration of the Federal Government into our schools, but the crippling grasp of our local government leaders has been far more intrusive, divisive, and damaging. Ultimately, a vast majority of public educators has not been involved, contacted, or given the opportunity to give input on the policies and bills that will be voted on this session. We are on the front lines trying to work in partnership with parents and families to provide students the best quality education possible. We are informed, invested, and involved in public schools. Our voices should matter and we should have the opportunity to express our concerns AND have them considered whether we are delegates or not. Meanwhile, children are caught in the crosshairs of political posturing.

Parents and other public education advocates, I encourage you to make your voices heard on these matters.

Legislators, I beg you on behalf of all of the children of Utah to avoid reckless legislation based the interests of a few rather than the unalienable rights of all.

Moving forward, I am hopeful for a bright future in education that consists of parents, educators and legislators working together for Utah students.

Kate W. Ross

Posted originally at Utah Parents in Education. Reposted with permission. 

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