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In our opinion: Investing in Utah’s children

Published: Sunday, Sept. 16 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Kindergartners Leland Vanvelzer, Helena Burgos, Adriana Lazaro and Merci Snow work on reading with trained paraprofessional Patricia Sperry at Dee Elementary School in Ogden on Thursday, September 13, 2012.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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Doing more with less has always been one of Utah's signature virtues. But even frugality reaches diminishing returns.

As Utah's economy slowly recovers from the Great Recession, it is time to talk candidly about structural solutions to Utah's grave education issues, where a dollar saved can mean a dollar wasted by forgoing critical investments in our children's future.

On a per-child basis, Utah invests less in its schoolchildren than any other state in the country. Utah spent just over $6,000 per pupil compared to a national average of $10,615 according to the latest figures on public education finance from the U.S. Department of Education.

In the not-too-distant past, the question for fiscally prudent law-makers was whether it made sense to invest additional funds in education when Utah was already collecting about as much educational revenue, on a proportional basis, as any other state in the nation, and the public education system was delivering better than average results.

But as we look to the future, merely average performance nationally is not an acceptable return on our educational investment. Utah's educational results trail those of peer states in reading, math and science, according to the Utah Foundation.

And America's national educational performance has plummeted compared to other developed nations. If we wish to remain competitive globally, Utah requires superior— not average — results.

The globally competitive leadership and skill for the 21st century will come from those classrooms that consistently train students who possess world-class skill and unquestioned integrity.

Can we really expect to find such classrooms in a state that year-after-year invests less and less of its income into public education?

Our rhetorical question is not meant to suggest that lawmakers should simply throw more money into public education as currently governed and incentivized. Utahns are correct to look at states like California and New York to recognize that when it comes to public education, high spending on the educational status quo doesn't equal high performance.

Nonetheless, as the state now rebuilds its finances, there is a unique opportunity to integrate a new paradigm of educational excellence into a broader structural reform of state finances.

In creating the conditions for new dollars to flow to public education, we would urge lawmakers to give Utah's families greater choice over how those dollars are spent. In repeating our long-standing call for greater choice and accountability in our public education, we also call for greater choice and accountability in the state's budgeting.

A series of unrelated decisions over the past 20 years have not only squeezed educational funding, they have also decreased the choice and accountability of our lawmakers.

For example, through piecemeal legislative giveaways, Utah's lawmakers have put enormous restrictions on collections for and use of the state's general fund. These include dozens of sales tax perks to specific industries, from aerospace and motion pictures, to ski resorts and purveyors of hay.

Because of constitutional changes, state colleges and universities now seek funding from income taxes when general fund revenues tighten. Consequently, whenever legislators burden the general fund with cumulative tax exemptions and earmarks, they inadvertently increase pressure on public education.

And although many of these loopholes were passed to improve economic development or efficiency, little is done to accurately measure their economic or fiscal impact. Nonetheless, they tie the hands of current legislators and keep hundreds of millions of dollars out of the annual budgeting processes associated with the general fund.

Utah has an opportunity to simultaneously chart an innovative course for public education that merits significant new investment and to comprehensively review the revenue streams to fund that innovation as the state emerges from recession. We would urge the state school board to slow down the process of replacing the state superintendent in order to find a proven champion for choice and accountability, and we would urge lawmakers to comprehensively review and eliminate each exemption, earmark and restriction that limits meaningful investment in Utah's children.

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