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Op-ed: Utah public schools are worth increased investment

Alex Goodlett, Deseret News

“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” — Andy McIntyre

One of the biggest mistakes that marketers make is focusing solely on features of a product or service without effectively communicating the benefits of the product. In other words, they advertise the “what” and forget the “why this matters” part of the equation. In fact, most of us make purchase decisions based on perceived benefits of one or more of the features. How often do you pay more for a product because of some sort of added value? For example, when you buy a car, do you upgrade in order to receive greater reliability? More room? Leather seats? Gas economy? In making the decision, consumers weigh whether upgrading is worth the additional investment.

Utah has struggled for decades to address the features of public education — more technology for example — without adequately explaining the benefits of investing in our kids. Recently, the Our Schools Now campaign began the process to collect signatures and finally allow Utah voters to decide whether our public schools are worth increased investment. But that’s just a feature. Let’s play the “What if …” scenario, with the intention of inspiring readers to make the connection between more funding and net benefits.

What if we could pick the best and brightest from a sea of qualified, motivated teachers? Meaningful salary increases statewide would ultimately attract greater numbers of gifted educators into the profession and address Utah’s severe teacher shortages.

What if the vast majority of kids could not only learn to read proficiently, but read to learn? Extensive research shows that students that read at or above grade level fare significantly better in all other subjects. New investments in classroom specialists and aides in critical areas like reading, science and math would enhance student performance and save taxpayer dollars by fewer numbers later requiring developmental classes. The stated goal of the Governor’s Education Excellence Commission is that 90 percent of students be proficient in reading by the end of the third grade and proficient in math by the end of the eighth grade.

What if your school had highly trained behavioral health professionals to screen for emerging mental health issues? Anxiety, depression and other behavioral health factors are becoming some of the most challenging problems in public and higher education systems and one of the primary reasons students drop out of school.

What if Utah’s students were provided extra doses of training in skills that employers want most, but are having difficulty finding among our graduates? While Utah has a robust economy right now, employers moving here to set up businesses report significant challenges finding graduates with skills in the ability to speak/present to groups, writing, problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.

What if residents of neighborhood schools had the opportunity to help decide how new monies would be spent at their own schools, with oversight and accountability given to local, elected school boards? Individual schools have unique needs. The ability to weigh in fosters unity in communities where patrons in the area get to know neighbors and share their collective thoughts about priorities for their own schools.

What if schools were able to support early learning, ensuring that young kids enter kindergarten ready to learn? Investing in pre-K and extended day kindergarten has proven to be one of the most effective ways to maximize learning opportunities, giving kids a head start.

What if schools were able to free up career guidance counselors to do the jobs they were trained to do? Utah schools lack sufficient career counselors to guide adolescents into preparing for productive careers that align with the real needs in the workforce. Currently, most students get about 10 minutes per year with a guidance counselor because of huge case loads — about 750:1 students per counselor.

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What if schools hired more teacher aides to help with individualized learning, helping students that struggle and freeing up teachers to help other kids advance? Class sizes would effectively be lowered by hiring additional personnel without necessarily adding classrooms.

What if new jobs were created in every community in the state of Utah — good jobs that help kids? Each of the “what if” scenarios listed above involves hiring people wherever a school exists. Estimates show that 5,000-10,000 new jobs would be created directly or indirectly if new monies were infused into public education in Utah.

These are but a few of the benefits of increased funding for education. There’s another part of the story. In 2007, the Utah Legislature cut the state’s income tax rate from 7 percent to 5 percent — a tax cut of nearly 30 percent. Since income tax is Utah’s education fund, that decrease has resulted in a lost funding opportunity to the tune of about $220 million each year since. Importantly, the 5 percent rate is not what is actually paid. Rather, the effective income tax paid is considerably lower due to the numerous exemptions and deductions allowed on tax returns. The Our Schools Now campaign is proposing that voters decide whether or not to restore a small portion of the tax cut, from 5 percent to 5.5 percent.

Utah owes a depth of gratitude to a handful of leaders who have stepped up and put their significant expertise, political and monetary capital on the line to add strategic vision to Utah’s thorny public education funding problem. Each one of these stellar leaders — Gail Miller, Nolan Karras, Bob Marquardt, Rich Kendell, Jesselie Anderson, Ron Jibson and Scott Anderson — should be commended for their leadership in guiding Our Schools Now.

Don’t let the name of the organization get lost: Our equals ALL of us. Schools equal the cradle of economic vitality and family stability. Now equals the urgency that education funding can wait no longer. It is this type of leadership that has contributed to Utah’s reputation as a state offering unique collaboration and vision. Voters should carefully consider not just the features of the proposal, but the future benefits derived therein.

Patricia W. Jones is CEO of the Women’s Leadership Institute, a 501(c)3 based at the Salt Lake Chamber. She was a co-founder and former president of Dan Jones & Associates. She served in both the Utah House and Senate for a total of 14 years, holding leadership positions 12 of those 14 years. She was elected minority leader of the Senate in 2008, the first woman of either party elected to lead a caucus in the Utah Legislature.

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