Can anyone recall a legislative session where there wasn’t someone demanding more education spending? It’s about as predictable as the punchline from a Pat Bagley cartoon. I’m not automatically opposed to any spending increases, but I do expect to have an idea of what the money is going to be spent on and hold someone accountable for it. In this regard, the proponents of Our Schools Now are often failing miserably to make the case.
Let’s get this out of the way right now: yes, I know that Utah has the lowest per-pupil spending of any state. But that also means exactly nothing. (This is the part where you sharpen your pitchforks.) It is not a measure of student achievement, school performance, or passion for education. In fact, there’s no direct correlation between overall spending and performance, so it doesn’t even make any sense to claim that increased spending will lead to better results. Spending is nothing more than a vanity metric, a “keeping up with the Jonses” race with no winner. Despite not even a correlation (much less causation) between spending and outcomes, Our Schools Now has the audacity to claim “Greater Funding, Greater Outcomes”. Are there things that can be done in education that require money? Absolutely. But they are clearly targeted solutions with a defined cost, not a giant pile of slush fund with a promise to use it wisely.
It only goes downhill from there. The proposal stipulates that the money is sent straight to local school districts who will determine how best to spend it. Sounds good right? But wait, they also claim that money must be spent on “increased student learning” and that it will be tied to as-yet undefined performance metrics. Wait, aren’t these two items in conflict? And who gets to define the terms and make the determination as to if those conditions have been met? Aren’t these things usually worked out and refined on a regular basis by state and local school boards and the legislature? If the definitions in the ballot initiative end up being unworkable, who gets to change them?
All of this exposes some pretty significant weakness in the ballot initiative process. When you pose simple questions to voters (e.g. “should we raise the income tax rate from 5% to 5.875% which is allocated to education”), it’s easy to understand and make a rational choice. Once you amp the complexity up, things get murkier a lot faster. While there’s still no language available on the ballot initiative to be proposed, the few conditions already spelled out make it pretty clear that it’s going to be an over-complicated doozy. If something goes south, it’s unclear if the legislature will be able to clean up the mess afterward or if we’ll be subjected to annual “fix it” bills. Given the dumpster fire that ensued from Count My Vote (and you may recall that SB54 adopted the petition language wholesale), I’m not confident that the inevitable shortcomings will or can be properly fixed.
At its core, Our Schools Now is an attempt to remove policymaking decisions from the legislature into an unelected and unaccountable third party whose sole competency is marketing slogans to voters. The legislature may sometimes make mistakes and not pursue the policy you want, but is this really the way to compensate for it? Hardly.