Faith in Family

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For those who believe good education can be had at wholesale prices, Utah is a case in point. While it spends less per pupil on K-12 education than any other state in the country, many state-by-state measures of student achievement place Utah in the middle of the pack. Some even put it at the top.

How the state gets better-than-average results at rock-bottom costs has many explanations: Poverty is low; Utah has relatively few districts, and, as a result, relatively few administrators; and salaries for teachers and administrators fall on the low end of the national pay scale.

But one of the most important reasons is also the most intangible: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons make education one of their highest community priorities. This, combined with the church's emphasis on strong families, means that many Utah students come from homes with two parents who are eager to see their children learn.

"It's very clear that the influence of the church and its emphasis on the importance of the family has a real connection to what happens in the schools," says Jan Shipps, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis and an expert on the Mormon Church.

The state's economic growth and population boom, however, may be weakening the strength of the family and diluting the Mormon influence. Gov. Michael O. Leavitt in this year's State of the State speech cited the breakup of the family as one of his top concerns. Some state leaders are also worried that an increasing number of women are getting jobs rather than staying at home as the anchor of the family. Two out of three women in Utah work, and they make up 45 percent of the state's workforce.

Youth crime is up dramatically, too, and the influx of troubled kids from urban areas outside Utah doesn't account for all of the increase. "We have kids who on the surface have no reason to be in a gang," says Ron Stallworth, the state's gang-intelligence coordinator. "They come from the so-called 'nuclear' family, with a cat and a dog, a couple of fish, and parents making a six-figure income. They're regular church attendees and may have already been on their Mormon mission, but they're gang members."

Some state leaders believe that the Mormon church, not government, should lead Utah's response to its growing social problems. "We need a revival of church and voluntary organizations taking back their turf," says Howard A. Stephenson, the chairman of the Senate education committee. "They have been supplanted by government programs."

The church has recognized the changes taking place in Utah, says Gerry Pond, a spokesman for the Mormon Church. Recently, it produced a series of radio public-service ads in Spanish and English that featured teenagers talking about the danger of alcohol. Also, some of the thousands of Mormons who become fluent in a second language while abroad on missionary work volunteer to help tutor.

"You can't just look at things and say, 'Oh, how horrible,"' Pond says. "The church--both at the headquarters and locally--is encouraging Latter-day Saints to act."

The response of the Mormon Church's hierarchy to the problems in Utah, however, may be limited by its problems abroad. The church this year installed a new president, Gordon B. Hinckley, who is expected to focus on exploding international growth and the financial strains of maintaining missions in foreign countries, says Douglas D. Alder, an expert on the church. "America is impinging on the state [through people moving to the state] at the same time that the church is focusing on a bigger mission," says Alder, a professor of history at Dixie College in southern Utah. "In a sense, they've got bigger fish to fry."

--Drew Lindsay

Vol. 15, Issue 02

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