Laura Seitz, Deseret News
TAYLORSVILLE — The business leaders behind Prosperity 2020 presented their plan for investing in education on Wednesday, which included a call for increased spending in education and, potentially, new state revenues.
Prosperity 2020 is a partnership between Utah education officials and private businesses to increase educational outputs in the state. Specifically, the group has adopted the goal of two-thirds of Utah's adult workforce holding a post-secondary degree or certificate by the year 2020, along with other public education and higher education benchmarks.
Educators, lawmakers and representatives from various chambers of commerce around Utah met Thursday at Nelson Laboratories, where Prosperity 2020 leaders presented their plan for reaching goals though innovation, investment and accountability in education.
"Utah can build the strongest economy in the nation by having the most educated workforce in the nation," said Prosperity 2020 Chairman Mark Bouchard. "Our greatest natural resource that we have is our youthful population."
The group's plan includes two legislative priorities: a joint resolution by state lawmakers adopting the goal of two-thirds of adults holding a degree by 2020 and more than $70 million for strategic investments in education.
Within that funding, Prosperity's plan calls for $43.6 million to go toward public education for the implementation of computer adaptive testing, early intervention and at-risk programs, ACT testing for all high school students and the development of coursework in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields — collectively referred to as STEM.
The plan also calls for $20 million in higher education for STEM and health profession degree development as well as the expansion of online and concurrent enrollment courses. Another $9.75 million is requested for technical education to triple the number of Utahns with technical certification by 2020.
Bouchard said that more money isn't always the answer to the challenges facing Utah's education and economic climate, but he added that much like in the business sector, strategic investments are required for growth.
"We must change the dialogue in Utah from a discussion of the cost of education to a discussion of investing in education," Bouchard said.
Part of that changing dialogue could also include tapping into new sources of state revenue to fund education. In a written prospectus distributed by Prosperity 2020, the group lists several revenue options, which include making changes to the severance tax system, increasing the motor fuel tax and restoring the sales tax on food to its full rate.
Natalie Gochnour, chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber, said that the business partners of Prosperity 2020 are not necessarily calling for increased taxes, but are demonstrating that there are some areas of Utah's tax code where discussion could take place.
"We want to be responsible," she said. "If we're talking about investing, we have to talk about new revenue."
She shared figures from the U.S. Census Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Utah State Office of Education that show Utah ranked 29th among states for its public education spending as a proportion of personal income. Utah also has the lowest per-pupil spending rate in the country.
Gochnour said Utah's low tax burden is often cited by businesses as a motivator that drew them to the state. She said good tax decisions in the past have helped Utah's economic growth, but during the same time education has become underfunded.
When asked about the effect that raising the sales tax on food would have on low-income families, Gochnour suggested that a discussion of tax changes could include other initiatives that target socioeconomically disadvantaged Utahns.
"We want to make sure they know that we're willing to support a variety of conversations," she said.