Utah should lift restrictions on education dollars | Opinion

The Utah Legislature uses approximately 60 separate funding sources to provide more than $5 billion annually to Utah’s 41 school districts and 135 charter schools. About three-quarters of that money has virtually no strings attached. The Washington County School Board can use this money to meet the needs of its students. The Alpine School Board can and does use its share of this money very differently, as its students, teachers and staff have different needs.

With this final quarter (just over $1 billion), the legislature is limiting how school leaders can spend those dollars. If you want your share of paraeducator funding, you must follow R277-324 and UCA 53F-2-411. If you want your share of accelerated student funding, you must follow R277-707 and UCA 53F-2-408. etc

One way to think about these restrictions is to compare this funding to a piano. With unlimited funding, school boards and administrators can play the music they want. If their students need The Killers, they can play it. If their students need Beethoven, they can play that. With limited funds, however, school boards and administrators can only play one tune. Students in a given district may not respond to this melody, but it is the melody.

These restrictions do not affect a school’s obligation to meet the needs of its students. These obligations exist in state and federal laws, regardless of how schools pay to meet these needs. The restrictions only limit how schools can meet the needs of their students.

Utah’s restrictions are not unique. The most recent survey of state education budgets (2013) shows that the number of restricted “programs” in state education budgets ranged from one (Florida and Montana) to 64 (Iowa). Don’t forget that Utah has 60! Legislators restrict funding either because they believe this regulatory structure will get more money for students who need it, and/or because they believe legislators are better consumers of research on which will improve outcomes in public education.

The problem is that there is little reason to believe either of these hypotheses. As researchers Thomas Timar and Marguerite Roza write: “There is no consistent evidence to prove that such programs do, indeed, have the intended effects.” In other words, restrictions imposed by legislatures across the country on how schools can use public education funds do not change the outcomes of the students they hope to target.

More troubling still, restrictions on these funding flows create huge burdens for local and public school leaders. For each program, administrators and principals must complete reports describing how they used the funds. Then the State Board of Education must audit and monitor each of these funding streams to ensure that schools are using them according to restrictions.

To change the analogy, school leaders at the national and local levels spend a lot of time worrying about how much sugar is in a cupcake, rather than whether the cupcake actually tastes good. If these restrictions don’t actually move the academic needle, the restrictions are well-intentioned, burdensome, and, it seems, unsuccessful.

So what should Utah lawmakers do? Instead of using 60 separate programs with dozens of restrictions, why not limit the scope of restricted funding programs to those where evidence suggests they can have the most impact on student learning outcomes?

It seems more reasonable to let local school boards, school administrators, and teachers who interact daily with our children and their students decide what tune to play, what kind of cupcake to bake. Our trusted local councils are more likely to know their students’ learning needs better than our good friends on Capitol Hill.

Let’s reduce bureaucratic burdens where possible and move more of our limited educational resources to where they can have a lasting impact on the lives and learning experiences of Utah children.

Chris Fawson researches the economics of education at Utah State University. Mr. Royce Van Tassell is Executive Director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools.

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