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My view: Utah Legislature must allocate more money to education

By Brian S. King

Published: Sunday, Jan. 22 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Utah House of Representatives meet at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City Monday, Oct. 3, 2011. Governor Herbert has called the Utah Legislature to a Special Session to address seven legislative issues.

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I remember very well the names of each of my Kindergarten through third grade teachers: Ms. Fellows (my first crush!), Ms. Ferre, Ms. Howe and Ms. Faulkner. I was lucky to have such wonderful teachers who cared as much as they did for their students. They were a great influence for good on my life. I'd be surprised if most people reading this don't have the same type of memories.

But my school experiences in Utah were in the '60s, '70s and '80s, and things have changed since then. Elected officials talk about students being our most important resource, that we must invest in our future and that a well educated work force is critical to our economic development. And it's all true.

But in the past 20 years, we've seen a discouraging disconnect between what elected officials say and the decisions they make at the Legislature. Test scores compared to other states have decreased, and tuition for college students has increased. Earlier this month, a national report showed we slipped another notch, from 41st to 42nd, in the quality of our public education system. In the past 10 years, our high school graduation rate has declined by more than 7.5 percent.

Some say that poor funding for public and higher education is simply a function of our larger-than-average family size and that focusing on per pupil spending levels doesn't accurately reflect our commitment to our students. But there is reason for worry. Utah ranks 26th in the nation in the amount of tax revenue public education received for every $1,000 in personal income its citizens earn.

In the '90s, Utah was in the top 10 in the country in this category. Utah is increasingly becoming distinguished by ranks according to our chances for learning, and many of our citizens are being left without even a high school diploma because of their poverty. These are the marks of serious problems.

In each session, our Legislature makes decisions about how state tax dollars will be allocated for everything from education to economic development to human services to public roads. Those decisions, much more than the words we say, reflect the Legislature's priorities and values. What has been happening for the last 20 years is that Republican legislative leaders have prioritized funding for other areas ahead of public and higher education.

For example, last year the Legislature earmarked a portion of future growth in sales taxes for roads but effectively failed to allocate money for 12,000 new K-12 students. We also failed to fund enrollment growth during the 2010 legislative session. In 2008, we put in place a flat state income tax that has led to a direct loss of revenue of $200 million every year since to public and higher education.

Some of my colleagues want to more aggressively identify and target what they call "failing schools." But before we point fingers at other institutions that are falling short in effectively educating our kids, we should look in the mirror. The institution that has, over many years, most clearly failed our children in providing the resources to ensure they receive a first-class public and higher education is the Utah State Legislature. Our actions contradict our platitudes about commitment to education.

Democrats in the Legislature are committed to improving the quality of our neighborhood schools and the experiences our children have in them. In this legislative session, Democratic senators and representatives, myself included, will present a number of bills as part of our "Best Schools Initiative" designed to attract and retain great teachers, improve teacher performance, reduce the amount of students per classroom and implement tools to increase the quality of education. Democrats are committed to public education, not just in words, but in the legislation we propose and support.

Isn't it time that Utah got back to the fundamentals that made our public and higher education systems among the best in the nation? Do our children deserve anything less?

Brian S. King represents District 28, Salt Lake City, in the Utah House of Representatives and is minority assistant whip.

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