That “tired statistic” harms education

To begin, let me make it clear: I was not present when Superintendent Brad Smith presented his speech to the Utah Taxpayers Association Conference on May 28. I do not know the context nor the entirety of the speech. I have spoken to those who were present and found the speech far less offensive than some.

Kim Burningham
By Kim Burningham

My purpose for writing is to respond to two phrases reported by the press and in numerous commentaries. I think both phrases deserve careful examination.

Comment #1: Tired statistics may well be true

Reports of Smith’s speech say, “He was critical of perennial and generic requests for more school resources and the ‘same old tired statistic’ that Utah ranks last in the nation in per-student education funding.” (Salt Lake Tribune, May 28, 2015)

I do not disagree with Smith’s description. The statistic is “tired,” but I believe the duration of the facts makes the condition even more appalling. For decades the statistic has been repeated.   Smith, and no others, to my knowledge, deny the truth of the statement. It just goes on and on!

Statisticians repeatedly remind us of Babe Ruth’s phenomenal record: 714 career home runs and 2, 213 runs batted in.   Just because he died 65 years ago does not make it less true, or less inspiring.   And just because the statistics about Utah’s abysmal education funding are old, does not make them less true or less depressing!

In fact, just this week (Salt Lake Tribune, June 2, “We’re no. 51: Utah last again for per-student spending”) the same “tired” truth appeared again. The report released by the U. S. Census Bureau ranked Utah’s per student spending–$6,555 a year—“at the bottom of the heap for U.S. States.” The report further explained, “Utah’s spending level was…less than one-third of the highest ranked state, New York, at $19,818 per student.” Average spending in the 50 states is $10,700 vs. $6,555 for Utah.

Bottom line: The statistic may be tired, but it is true, and I for one will not stop repeating the shameful reality in the hope that someday it will change!   Olene Walker is a politician I highly respect. I have heard her say, “I just hope I will live to see the day when Utah is no longer on the bottom of education funding.” I am with you, Olene—and frankly, though he may be interpreted differently, I suspect Brad Smith agrees.

Comment # 2: “Higher” education funding may not be a “virtue,” but it is directly related to things that are!

In the same report, Smith is quoted speaking on average per-pupil expenditures: “There is no virtue in rising higher on that list, and there is no particular vice in being low on it.”   Again I find the statement falls short of the impact.

Although our actual position on the list makes little difference that position represents low per-pupil funding, and our basement position relates to things that do make a difference.

For example, because Utah spending is so little we have much larger class sizes. Faced with inadequate funds, our local school boards have taken one of the few options available to them: put more children in every class.   Statistics on this matter vary because of different ways used to report.   One report suggests the average class size in the United States is 15.7, but in Utah it is 22.1. (Utah Parents for Choice in Education, Utah Education Facts, 2015) Examination will reveal those figures are old.   The problem is compounded because some small classes and some very large classes make averages less than dependable. Reports abound of very large class sizes. Regardless of your source and hence the exact figure, analysts agree Utah has large class sizes, and although some observers question the value of smaller classes, I am convinced that most teachers and parents agree it makes a difference.   Low funding = larger class sizes.

Another example: because Utah has low per-pupil funding, our students have less student support from counselors and specialists. In my Davis school district, one report indicates we have 1 counselor for every 463 students. How can student support personnel be expected to offer genuine help with such high student-counselor ratios. (National Association for College Admission Counseling, 2015). Low funding = less student support.

Education impacts economic development.   Businesses considering Utah view our low educational effort and may decide to take their employees elsewhere. Low funding = less appealing economic development.

Of inestimable value, teacher morale is impacted negatively when the teachers know financial support for their effort is so low. Low funding = lower teacher morale.

I believe low student funding hurts children. Low funding in and of itself is not the shame, but we need to talk about the consequences: mammoth class sizes, reduced student support, low teacher morale. weakened economic development. I do not know, but I suspect Superintendent Smith is very much interested in class sizes, student support, economic development, and I sincerely hope he cares about teacher morale.

Supt. Smith also emphasized in his speech the importance of achieving “learning outcomes.” In this we certainly agree. The bottom line really is, “Has the student learned?”   If we differ, it is probably because I believe you cannot divorce funding from learning outcomes. Increased funding does not necessarily mean more learning, but low funding makes it much harder to achieve improved learning outcomes.

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