While many outstanding things occur in Utah public schools, the state's public education system as a whole needs drastic overhaul. Too many students can't read, too many drop out and too many graduate from high school unprepared for college. Therefore, I can understand Sen. Aaron Osmond's point when he proposes the elimination of compulsory education. No student should be compelled to attend a mediocre public, charter or private school.
That said, I believe in compulsory education for three important reasons.
First, the research is clear that today's young adults must obtain some type of post-secondary education to succeed in the local, national and international job markets. It is well documented that Utah needs 66 percent of adults to hold some type of post-secondary credential by 2020 to meet growing workforce demands and that students must be academically prepared for college by the time they graduate from high school. The U.S. Department of Education has published research recommending not only that all students take a college-ready curriculum beginning in the ninth grade, but also that students should be "surrounded with adults and peers who build and support their college-going aspirations." How students, particularly those whose parents or family members have not gone to college, will have access to such a curriculum or network of support if they are not in school, is difficult to imagine.
Second, compulsory education is critical to Utah's economy. A 2007 research study by Cisco stated: "The 20th century was the education century. For the first time in human history the majority of the world's population learned to read and write. The introduction of universal compulsory schooling, the daring and innovative mass education systems pioneered in the 19th century, made this happen. The 20th century also demonstrated that universal compulsory schooling is indispensable for economic prosperity and social well-being in an 'industrial growth society.' "
The study also reported that if the average number of years of K-12 secondary and higher education for males age 25 and over increases by one year, "then the rate of economic growth increases by 0.44 percent per year. These are powerful results since an increase in economic growth of almost half a percent will have a large impact on the total GDP of a country over time. This is one of the reasons that education has been treated as such a positive investment for governments." Such evidence translates into an additional $488,400,000 in economic growth on top of Utah's 2012 GDP of $111 billion.
Finally, compulsory education is the hallmark of a civilized society that prioritizes healthy, safe environments for children. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) declares that member countries must "make primary education compulsory and available free to all" (Article 28). Yet according to 2009 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization data, 67 million children around the globe are still out of school, many of whom live in dire poverty and work in unsafe conditions. Subjecting ourselves to comparison with Third World countries will not help our efforts to portray Utah as a place that is friendly to both businesses and families.
Of course, requiring students to attend schools that lack rigor, relevance and outstanding instruction is unfair. But let's not throw the baby out with the bath water. The Legislature could take many steps short of eliminating compulsory education to ensure that more students want to attend school. Such steps include the adoption of true college-ready graduation standards that will appropriately challenge students to prepare for higher education; implementation of evidence-based career education programs, such as Linked Learning, that help students understand the connections between their studies and the real world; and major investment in the arts, which give both STEM- and humanities-oriented students opportunities to create, collaborate and innovate.
In short, we need to challenge the status quo in public schools. But compulsory attendance is one element of the status quo that should be retained because of its benefits to both individuals and the community at large.
David S. Doty is a consultant with Education Direction, an education reform company working with public schools throughout the United States to improve student achievement. He is the former superintendent of Canyons School District.