September 1, 2012

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Article

Back to School

Pivotal Lessons about Educational Progress

Natalie Gochnour

September 1, 2012

I am a product of Utah’s public schools. I grew up in the East Millcreek area and attended Olympus High School. I did my undergraduate and graduate work at the University of Utah (yes, I bleed red). I also have two children—Rosie and Theo—raised in Utah’s public education system. When it comes to education, Utah is all I know.

While not an education policy wonk, my career has always placed me on the front row of education policy in our state. It started in the state budget office, where public and higher education receive two out of every three state dollars. I worked for Gov. Norman Bangerter when he made the hardest call of his political life and raised the sales tax to free up funds for education. It was a gutsy move and I took note.

I also worked for Gov. Michael Leavitt when he created the Employers Education Coalition. Fraser Bullock, fresh off his success from the Olympics, led the effort. Over time, the effort died because of policy disputes and frustration with a tradition-bound education system. Business leaders gave up.

I sat 15 feet away from the podium in the Capitol Rotunda when Gov. Olene Walker in her inaugural acceptance speech proclaimed that education is in her DNA. She later threatened to veto the budget if the Legislature did not fund her early reading program. Education battles get feisty in this state.

Gov. Jon Huntsman made his run at educational progress with something called the 21st Century Workforce Initiative, an attempt to apply the Lean Six Sigma approach to education. The effort fell short of an educational renaissance.                        

I still remember a memorable meeting where the state school superintendent refused to participate because the state school board wanted her focused on other things. It’s hard to improve education when the state school board and the governor don’t get along.

This summer, I’ve watched with interest as the Utah Education Association endorsed Gov. Gary Herbert despite his support for school vouchers, which is anathema to the state’s teachers union. Since he isn’t actively pursuing a pro-voucher agenda, they must be satisfied with his education leadership, which included a veto of a sales tax earmark for transportation that legislators later overturned.

I share these stories to make a point. Educational progress is complex. It challenges the best of our political, business and community instincts. It is not for the faint of heart. 

Back to school season is a good time to redouble our efforts to improve education. As we do so, I offer a simple observation: We make educational progress more difficult than it needs to be. People of good will can and must join together to take a giant step forward for our future.

I recommend a line of reasoning that works like this: Make children our highest priority. More than any ideological concern or anecdotal story, our top priority should be the development of our children. To borrow from a great hospital in town—children first and always.

Stay in your lane. Roles are important. Elected leaders, in response to input from their constituents, including business, should define the “what.” What outcomes do we want? What measures will we use to track progress? What will we do to hold people accountable?

Educational professionals should define the “how.” They are trained, they are committed and they are pros. Our new commissioner of higher education, Dave Buhler, is a former legislator, city councilman and associate commissioner. He has the confidence of college presidents. The superintendent of schools, Larry Shumway, is a former teacher, principal, superintendent and deputy commissioner. These guys can get the job done.

Quit arguing. To those who talk because they like to hear themselves talk, I say hush. There must be a million ways to improve education in this state, and we don’t need to rank order them. We do need to quit fighting about them. Let’s unite behind pivotal changes that everyone agrees on and march forward. Tying increased investment to more innovation is a great place to start.

Let educators know you appreciate them. My past is filled with teachers who helped create my sense of self, sense of purpose and sense of community. The same holds true for my children, where teachers like Mr. Wood at Murray High taught my kids to think and act as scholars. Let’s honor and esteem the teaching profession.

I’m a part of a movement to enhance education called Prosperity 2020. It is the largest business-led education effort in state history. We want to deploy Utah’s largest youth population in the country as the greatest workforce in the country. The first step is to quit making educational improvement more difficult than it needs to be. Learn more at Prosperity2020.com.

Natalie Gochnour is the chief economist at the Salt Lake Chamber.

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