People in the state need to pay some more income tax to fund education. I don't see how else this whole thing is going to work out. —Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City
After meeting with Utahns of all walks of life, Deseret News editors have identified five key issues that matter to Utah families. These issues, each interrelated with the others, will be addressed in the 2013 session of the Utah Legislature. Take a look at five issues that matter to Utah families.
SALT LAKE CITY — When Anitra Koehler thinks about the future of her elementary-age children's education, she worries about schools teaching to the test and focusing on literacy and numeracy at the expense of arts and music.
For her eldest daughter, a driven and focused student at Cyprus High School, Koehler is glad her school has a special program that lays the groundwork for students interested in the medical field. But she also worries about whether her daughter is getting a well-rounded education and whether her classmates who are interested in theater, science or math are getting the support they need.
"I know we have a lot of parents who are opinionated about our schools, but not necessarily willing to put in the time," she said.
Koehler, an assistant legislative director for the Granite District Region Five Parent Teacher Association, is not alone in those concerns. Parent involvement, early childhood intervention, student proficiency and college and career preparation have all emerged as key issues in education as lawmakers convene for the legislative session Monday.
The heart of the conversation centers on early childhood education, and how to balance a parent's responsibility to teach and prepare their children, and the state's responsibility to educate all children and help them be successful, regardless of circumstances.
Koehler worries about whether schools have the necessary funding they need to provide a quality education to every child. She said the parents she's spoken with are split roughly 50/50 on whether taxes should be increased to fund education.
"I do think more funding could be helpful," she said. "I think we're at the point where we can have that conversation."
Gov. Gary Herbert's proposed budget set aside roughly two-thirds, almost $300 million, of the state's projected new revenues for public and higher education. That figure would cover the $137 million that legislative analysts estimate is required to keep up with growth, as well as provide some potential funds for compensation, class size reduction, early intervention programs and the expansion of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – or STEM – programs.
But many in the education community say that simply funding growth, and even adding limited funds to a few targeted programs, is not a sufficient catalyst for change in a state that consistently ranks among the lowest states in the country for education funding.
"There's a fire in our theater, and everyone is still afraid to shout 'fire'," Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, told the Deseret News editorial board. "We don't have leadership that paints a vision of where this state should be going."
In a recent blog post on the Utah State Office of Education website, school board member Kim Burningham compared Herbert's proposed budget to the state's education needs. He congratulated the governor for a proposal that would fund growth and raise the state's per-pupil spending, but also suggests that more is required.
"Although the proposal is indeed an improvement, it is foolhardy to suggest it fits the need," he said. "We will still be by far the lowest funded education system in the United States, and state effort to fund education will not be retrieved."
He also said that Herbert's budget was only preliminary, and education officials have yet to see what actions will be taken by lawmakers.
Money for preschool
One bill already generating discussion is a proposal by Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, to create a statewide high quality preschool program for at-risk children. The program would be based on several successful models in the state, particularly one implemented in Granite School District.
By investing early in at-risk children, Osmond argues, the state can save millions down the road in special education costs and help narrow the achievement gap of Utah's increasingly diverse population.
"We're spending about $310 million in special education," he said. "My view is, we need to figure out how to spend our money more wisely, how can we get a better (return on investment) for taxpayer dollars spent."
Brenda Van Gorder, director of preschool services for Granite School District, said the program is directed toward English language learners and economically disadvantaged students. She said by targeting students who would otherwise enter kindergarten behind their grade-level peers, the program has resulted in "monumental change" in student performance and has proven successful at keeping children out of special education over the long term.
"Once you enter school ready, you typically stay ready for the next grade level," she said.
Granite has had a preschool program for several years, but revamped the program to its current form in 2006 after receiving a $4.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Van Gorder said in the first three years, the program served approximately 250 students who appeared to have learning disabilities. Today, those students are in the fifth, fourth and third grades and only 11 have been placed in special education programs.
"These students are not disabled," she said. "Many of these families are just limited in their choices."
She said the cost of putting a student through a year of preschool is $1,500 compared to roughly $2,800 in additional per-pupil costs for each year a student requires special education. Granite officials estimate that the 250 students who participated in the programs first three years – not including students who have participated since then – have saved $1.7 million.
"It's way less expensive to do high quality preschool than to do special education," she said. "You could save 12 years, 13 years of special education, maybe even more. That's a long time to be spending $2,800 a year."
But beyond the financial benefits, she said the program has made a significant difference in the lives of the students. Because of the preschool program, she said, students who were once considered learning disabled due to low test scores are now at the tops of their classes and talking about someday earning their bachelor's, masters and even doctorate degrees.
"It changes the trajectory for their entire education," Van Gorder said. "This is a possibility that could change the statistics in our state."
Public preschool has traditionally been a sticking point for conservatives, a challenge Osmond hopes to minimize by creating a funding model where private donors invest in the program and are repaid based on its success. Even so, groups like the Utah Eagle Forum say the state should not be running a preschool program.
Osmond said government should be limited. But he said the unavoidable reality is that each year more English language learners enter the public school system and the state needs to take steps to enable them to succeed.
In Salt Lake City, half of preschool-age children are minorities and the city's white population is shrinking. That trend, seen in greater numbers nationally, will continue over the coming decades throughout Utah.
"We have an obligation under our constitution to provide a quality education to every child," he said. "Right now we are failing these kids."
He said preschool would be voluntary and participation would require a parent to volunteer at their child's school. In that regard the program would be similar to some private and charter schools which, because of their elective nature, are able to mandate parental involvement as a requisite for participation.
"I am not promoting, or proposing, preschool for all students," he said. "It is a voluntary program, involving parents, and there is a home-based option."
Osmond's bill is one of many aimed at expanding early-intervention programs in the state to provide young students their best chance for success. In recent years, the importance of literacy and numeracy in the elementary grade levels has received a swell of attention at both locally and nationally.
Reading by third grade
Included in the goals of Prosperity 2020 – a statewide private-public partnership to improve education outcomes in the state – is a call for 90 percent of third-graders to become proficient in mathematics and language arts. Currently, 79 percent of third-graders score at the proficient level in language arts and 76 percent are proficient in math.
To achieve that goal, Prosperity 2020 has worked with the Governor's Education Excellence Commission and state education officials to request targeted funding for the expansion of early intervention and at-risk education programs. Prosperity 2020 has also pledged to place 20,200 volunteers in schools through its business partners.
Rep. John Knotwell, R-Herriman, has proposed a bill to implement a system where elementary teachers would be trained in identifying warning signs for dyslexia and would then refer students to a district specialist. Knotwell said the bill is still being drafted and it is not yet clear how much a statewide dyslexia screening program would cost, but the idea is to identify struggling students early and get them the help they need.
"We're trying to get kids to read by the third grade," he said. "One of the barriers is if they don't have the confidence because they literally can't see the letters."
Another bill, sponsored by Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, aims to amend the K-3 reading improvement program to focus funding toward initiatives that will result in increased proficiency scores. Stephenson recently met with school board members, teachers, education officials and other individuals "keenly interested in advancing reading" to receive their feedback on how the roughly $30 million in annual reading improvement funds could be better spent.
"Everyone I talk to agrees that we need improvement drastically, what we're currently achieving is not sufficient," he said. "We have to overcome that. We have a moral imperative to get every kid reading by the third grade."
He said one strategy that shows promise is the use of early intervention software programs that help individualize education for kindergarten and first-graders. The state recently went through a request for proposal process and is currently rolling out a number of software options at schools with a high number of low-income students and English language learners.
Stephenson was still drafting the specifics of his bill, but said the major takeaway he has received from meeting with educators is the need for local schools to have more flexibility in using their reading improvement money.
"Sometimes we paint them into a box," he said of legislation. "In trying to do good we inadvertently take away choices. We need to relax a lot of those restrictions and not force them to put a square peg into a round hole."
Money and class size
But new programs, and the fine-tuning of existing programs, require funding to employ and train the personnel behind them and purchase necessary resources. Utah currently spends the least per-pupil of any state in the country and according to the most recent data by Prosperity 2020, the state ranks 29th for public education spending as a percentage of personal income.
The state is also among the highest in terms of class size. The median size for a sixth grade class in Utah is 27 students. For a high school geometry class, it's 31 students.
Dabakis said that over the years there has been a lot of "shenanigans" when it comes to education funding. He said Herbert and members of the Legislature have applauded themselves for providing funding for growth in education, but schools continue to face mounting costs.
"There's a whole group of expenses that are not included in growth," he said. "When you're 51st in funding, I think the status quo isn't good enough."
Dabakis has proposed a bill that would move a number of below-the-line budget items – such as transportation costs, social security and retirement, school supplies and library books – into the definition of growth. He said the intent of the bill is to make sure that everyone is on the same page when discussing the budget and to make sure the needs of schools are met.
"So when we say 'we're funding growth,' we can actually fund growth and not the illusion of growth," he said.
Another bill that addresses school funding is one proposed by Rep. Jim Bird, R-West Jordan. Under the terms of the bill, 10 percent of the gross profit from Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control sales would be earmarked for education.
The bill is not Bird's first outside-the-box approach to funding education. In 2011, Bird's bill to allow advertisements on school buses passed and was quickly utilized by the Jordan School District as a way to generate revenue without raising property taxes.
Bird said that if his DABC bill were in place during the current fiscal year, it is estimated that schools would receive just under $40 million additional dollars, all without raising taxes. But it's not without cost; the 10 percent would otherwise go into the state's general fund to be spent on other public programs. Bird said earmarking the money for education will provide a better return on investment.
"This is an economic development issue," he said. "If we don't have an educated workforce our revenue will go down."
The concept of tying alcohol sales to school funding has generated some push back, Bird said. But he compared the proposal to his school bus advertisement bill, which initially drew some raised eyebrows but has proven to be a positive step for the school districts that take advantage of the option.
"We'll just move forward and see where this goes," he said.
Stephenson said he was not yet familiar enough with Bird's bill to state either support or oppose it. But he said he wasn't particularly averse to the concept of tying school funding to alcohol sales, especially considering that school lunch programs are already funded in part by DABC funds.
"We feed our kids on liquor taxes," he said. "I guess we're a little bit tainted already."
But Dabakis said that the state's practice of simply moving funds in the tens of millions from one coffer to another in an effort to increase funding without raising taxes is flawed. Instead, he said, the state should be making regular additions to the education budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and the only way to do that is by putting anti-tax ideologues on the defensive and demanding a sincere and necessary look at new revenues.
He said there is not enough sense of alarm amongst his colleagues in the Legislature and amongst Utah parents when it comes to the challenges facing education.
"People in the state need to pay some more income tax to fund education," he said. "I don't see how else this whole thing is going to work out."
Poll: Tax OK for schools
A recent poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates and released Wednesday by the University of Utah's Center for Public Policy & Administration shows that a majority of Utahns would support a tax increase to help schools. According to the poll, 55 percent of registered voters somewhat or strongly favor an increase in the state income tax to fund education, compared to 43 percent to somewhat or strongly oppose an increase.
The poll also found that education is the issue voters think is most important for the state to focus on compared to topics like economic development, health care reform, immigration policy and transportation.
Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, president of the Utah Education Association, said her organization – which historically has had a rocky relationship with the Legislature – has a positive outlook on the upcoming session. She said lawmakers and educators were able to work together to accomplish quality legislation in 2012 and expected this year to be more of the same.
"We were able to do some incredible work last year," she said. "We are really looking forward to continuing that collaborative work."
When asked what issues were of most importance to the UEA, Gallagher-Fishbaugh said she hoped lawmakers would adequately address funding for education, particularly a renewed investment in professional development and educational resources for teachers.
She also said the UEA is hoping for at least a cost of living increase for teacher salaries, something Utah's educators have gone without for the last four years.
"Our sense is that folks want teachers to be given a fair shake," she said. "I think many in the Legislature are recognizing that we have a serious funding issue in education."
Liz Zentner, president-elect of the Utah Parent Teacher Association, also said that she's optimistic for the upcoming Legislative session. She said that in recent years she's noticed a definite increase in the level of interest of state lawmakers to improve education, and their willingness to collaborate and be open to input and dialogue.
"I don't worry," she said. "I trust that our legislators are going to do what's best for our children, because they all want to."
As part of the Deseret News' coverage of the Legislature, we're taking an in-depth look at each of the five issues during the coming week.
Monday: Early childhood education
Tuesday: College and career readiness
Wednesday: Economic development
Thursday: Health care
Friday: Intergenerational poverty