Children crammed into classrooms, teachers stretched too thin and parents wishing Johnny could get more attention in class: The state wants to improve their lives.

Legislators over the next seven months will hammer out plans to get cash to classrooms to help kids learn better.

Again.

"It's been an issue since the Legislature was organized," said Rep. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, and co-chairwoman of the Education Interim Committee examining school funding. "We always need to find ways, appropriate ways, to fund public education."

But observers say lawmakers have had several chances to better fund schools but instead caved to political pressure.

"I really am waiting," said Sarah Meier, president of the Granite Board of Education. "Everything that's been introduced to help long-term funding has never happened."

Utah schools receive the lowest per-student funding and have the largest class sizes in the country. Some teachers, saddled with strict new achievement standards, haven't had a raise in years.

That's even though the state's public education budget has increased 60 percent over the past 10 years, including money to boost teacher pay and shrink class size.

In 2000, a general election year like this one, legislative heavy hitters put their heads together to find new resources for schools. The Funding of Public Education Task Force forwarded six ideas:

  • Add $10 million to the $28.4 million building fund for tax-poor school districts.

  • Give more state matching money — worth some $60 million by 2005 — to school districts willing to help themselves by raising property taxes.

  • Consider letting the state's basic property tax rise with the booming housing market, instead of changing every year to generate the same amount of money.

  • Give schools money from any new or increased fees on toxic waste disposal.

  • Assign a property tax loophole study.

  • Give schools $30.6 million to improve an outdated, crumbling and inadequate textbook supply.

    Lawmakers approved the state match for property tax hikes and building aid, but both were cut following the economic nosedive less than a year later.

    Really, only the textbook money, minus $7 million in what had been given earlier in the year, made it to schoolchildren. Still, a legislative audit revealed districts spent less of their own money on books instead of getting ahead of the problem — state school brass blamed budget cuts — or spent the money on library books or training teachers.

    Nothing happened with the others, but not for lack of opportunity.

    This year, lawmakers killed a bill to let the basic property tax rise with inflation, a measure that initially would have brought in $4.2 million.

    Ditto for the so-called "Jones-Mascaro bill" that would have given schools nearly $80 million by retooling the income tax, including phasing out deductions for dependents and for federal taxes.

    Clearly, legislators had no desire to raise taxes as the economy recovers. And from a political perspective, all 75 House seats and 15 of 29 Senate seats are up for election.

    But legislators also didn't support what some contend would increase per-student funding, ease class sizes and foster parental control in education, all without a tax increase.

    Legislative fiscal analysts projected that tuition tax credits would have saved the state $3.5 million in education costs the first year by enticing families to put children in private schools rather than keeping them in the public schools.

    But the fiscal projection was controversial. The State Office of Education and a Utah State Tax Commission expert said tuition tax credits would end up costing the state in the long run.

    The tuition tax credits issue underscores why lawmakers' long-term funding plans haven't taken off in recent years, observers say.

    It all comes down to philosophy.

    On one side are public school officials who want new, permanent streams of money for education. Typically, their proposals come in the form of tax increases — from eliminating tax deductions to taxing soda pop. Their cries have been magnified since voters in 1996 approved a constitutional amendment letting colleges dip into the income tax, further straining the cache once reserved for kindergarten through high school students.

    On the other side of the scales are conservatives who don't want to "throw money" at schools without proof — perhaps in higher test scores or better-prepared graduates — that educators use the money wisely. A business coalition empaneled by then-Gov. Mike Leavitt two years ago to make recommendations on education suggested that schools should better prioritize spending and that parents should receive tax credits for private school tuition.

    "It's difficult to bridge those (philosophical) gaps" between the two sides, said Royce Van Tassel of the pro-tuition-tax-credit groups Education Excellence Utah and Parents for Choice in Education.

    "There's a lack of trust, I think," said Carol Lear, attorney and coordinator of government and legislative relations for the State Office of Education. "They will never have a long-term funding plan for education until there are tuition tax credits. I've heard that over and over."

    But perhaps both sides can strike a happy medium with a little give and take on both sides, Lear said.

    The Education Interim Committee is charged with finding that mix.

    Comment on this story

    The committee in the past week began reviewing past studies and new approaches. Perhaps it will examine what each classroom needs, calculate what it would take to get it, and then find ways to do it, suggested Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper.

    Two other studies also could play into the issue.

    One, at Gov. Olene Walker's request, is picking apart Utah taxes to see if reform is in order.

    Lawmakers also are spending $150,000 on an independent study on how tuition tax credits might impact the state. The Legislative Management Committee next month will firm up specifics of the study and seek applicants to do the review.

    Maybe this time, studies will bring results.

    Recommendations are likely by year's end.


    E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com