Tom Smart, Deseret News
I often meet with students statewide and, whether it's one-on-one, or a presentation to the entire student body, I tell them, "If you want a good job, get a good education." It may sound simple — obvious even — but it's something I want them to remember, so I repeat it a few times for good measure.
As we commence the 2013 general session of the Utah State Legislature and determine the future course for our state, something just as obvious that I hope policymakers, community leaders and parents remember is this: A good education is not only vital for the future of our students; it is essential for the economic future of our state.
Thinking about education as just K-12 no longer suffices. We must change our collective mindset to K-16, focus on educational excellence and ensure academic outcomes align with the market's workforce demands.
As governor, my singular focus is creating jobs and improving the state's economy. Education and growing the economy are inextricably linked. And Utah's future economy will thrive only if our future workforce meets employer demand. That alignment is crucial — crucial for job growth, crucial for business attraction and retention, and crucial to household incomes, the primary determinant of future education funding.
That is a fact not understood well enough. Our state constitutionally commits 100 percent of state income tax revenue to public and higher education. If we increase incomes or increase the number of working Utahns, public education funding increases.
Underscoring how critical academic alignment is to employer needs, a study from Georgetown University concluded that for Utah's economy to return to full health and ensure education efforts produce a skilled workforce, 66 percent of all adult Utahns will need a post-secondary degree or certification by the year 2020.
It is indeed an ambitious goal. Right now, just under 43 percent of adult Utahns meet that standard. But our state is beginning to recognize that goal is more than just a nice thing to do; it's essential. Not only did my Education Excellence Commission embrace the challenge, but business leaders, legislators, educators and thought leaders also united behind it.
Now we are calling on the entire Legislature to join us. When we unite our collective voice and commit our individual efforts, great things will happen. This effort will undoubtedly raise the bar as each voice commits to do their part to drive outcomes in the right direction.
For my part as governor, for the fourth-straight year my No. 1 budget and legislative priority is education. It's not just about more education funding, but specifically about efforts proven to improve academic performance and completion, as well as meet employer demands. It starts with early intervention, making sure kids are on grade level and stay on grade level, as well as technology funding, teacher performance pay and STEM education.
Bottom line: Utah faces some tough realities. More than 20 percent of our state population is in the K-12 system, and the number of new students entering public education has been on the rise for the past 12 years. Funding that growth in an economic downturn, aside from any other education initiatives, is commendable. Yet many of us would like to see the amount spent on each student increase as well.
When you consider what it might require just to get to the average, focusing on per pupil spending may not be the most reasonable assessment tool. To reach just the average for national per pupil funding would require an additional $2.29 billion. Stifling economic impacts aside, that's an average tax increase of $2,628 per household. Compounding our funding challenge is the irresponsible amount of uncertainty in Washington, D.C.
Tax increases that would stifle a fragile and recovering economy are not the solution. Growing jobs, increasing income and expanding total revenue are the solution. Utah's economic track record proves it. It has never been more critical for us to remain true to principles of fiscal restraint and maintaining a business friendly environment.
Regardless of the chaos in the nation's capital, when the federal fiscal dust settles, Utah's principles and priorities must remain the same. Whether there is a lot to spend or a little, education must be this state's top priority. For our children's future, for the state's economy and for Utah families, we can afford nothing less.
Gary Herbert is the governor of Utah.
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