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I flew to Salt Lake City on April 15, to lecture the next morning at Brigham Young University in Provo, about an hour from SLC. This is the longest trip I have taken since my knee surgery a year ago. BYU is a private, faith-based institution, firmly grounded in the Mormon religion. About 95% of the students are Mormon. The church subsidizes tuition, which is less than $6,000 a year. That is no more than the public university. I learn wherever I go, and I looked forward to learning about education in Utah.
As I went to baggage claim, there were several families holding “welcome home” banners. I thought for sure they were welcoming service members back from Afghanistan or some other battleground, but I was wrong. They were welcoming young people back who had served as missionaries in distant lands.
When I arrived, it was snowing, which I didn’t mind except for the fact that I couldn’t see the magnificent mountains. I had a couple of hours of down time to rest, then went to dinner with a group of BYU faculty, Dean Mary Anne Prater, and presenters from Boise State. We had a very pleasant meal at a Brazilian restaurant where the food kept coming until everyone had enough.
My guide was Gary Seastrand, a veteran and knowledgable educator. He was gracious, attentive, and thoughtful. There are some things I can’t do–like climbing steps to the podium without a handrail–and Gary was always there to guard and protect me.
The next day I spoke, then engaged in a lively question and answer session.
During and between meals, this is what I learned about Utah.
It is the lowest spending state in the nation. The legislature is very charter-friendly. Several legislators gave up their elected positions to open charters. Needless to say, none of these charter founders is an educator. The charters are typically Caucasian, with few, if any, children with disabilities or English language learners. The charters get more funding than public schools. Utah had a referendum on vouchers in 2007, and it was rejected by a margin of 62-38. Of course, there are still voucher supporters in the legislature, but they have already been turned down resoundingly by the voters. So, charters now have become the functional substitute for free-market fundamentalists.
Utah adopted the Common Core but dropped out of the SBAC testing. AIR developed new tests for Utah. Last year, when the tests were administered for the first time, most students were found to be “not proficient,” which the media interprets as “failed.” That is the pattern everywhere. When tests are aligned with the Common Core, no matter who develops them, most students fail.
Despite the obstacles thrown in their way by the state, the educators I met—principals, assistant principals, teachers, superintendents, and teacher educators–seemed remarkably cheerful about their jobs. I was repeatedly told by people about their love of teaching and their genuine dedication to their students.
Of course, many asked for guidance about how best to protect their schools from the wave of privatization that emanates from the legislature. I talked about the inspirational Néw York opt out and encouraged them to work together in unity against harmful policies. In unity there is strength. I was often reminded that Utah has a strong individualistic strain, which somehow co-exists with the Mormon commitment to service and social responsibility. In a state where Mormons are a significant presence, it is that idealism that must eventually prevail if public education is to be preserved.
When I left the next day, the clouds had lifted, and I could not take my eyes away from the exquisite snow-capped mountains.
I hope to return to Utah, next time as a tourist. What a beautiful state, with beautiful people. I need more time to take in the physical beauty.