SALT LAKE CITY — Six days into the 2013 Utah legislative session Gov. Gary Herbert said he is not wavering from his economy-first approach to getting more money for education, rejecting tax increases as counter to developing the workforce Utah needs.
On Tuesday, Herbert takes that message to Washington, D.C., to testify before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. His invitation came as a result of his efforts to align Utah's educational goals with the needs of employers and the state's goal of 66 percent of Utah's adults holding a post-secondary degree or certificate by the year 2020.
"You can’t have continued, sustained economic growth and expansion without a skilled labor force," Herbert said. "That means education and that means appropriate education, things that line up with the demands of the marketplace."
How to fund that education effort is at the heart of the current legislative session.
Public education in Utah has long been dogged by funding concerns, with a large student population resulting in the lowest per-pupil spending and some of the largest class sizes in the country.
Utah Democrats have described the state of public education as "catastrophic" and, like other critics, called on the governor and Legislature to take a serious look at the long-term direction of education in the state and move beyond simply funding growth each year to making large-scale investments in Utah's schools.
A recent poll by Exoro and the University of Utah's Center for Public Policy and Administration found that a majority of registered Utah voters would support increasing taxes if the money went to education.
But Herbert said the revenue that follows economic expansion is the key to funding education and a tax increase would only threaten the state's financial stability.
"Raising taxes would not, in fact, put more money into education, it would stifle a fragile growing economy right now, and the end result would be actually less money," he said.
"Higher tax rates, slower economic growth and expansion equals less income tax monies to be paid into our coffers and less money for education. That would be a faulty way to go about providing more money to education."
In interviews Monday, Herbert discussed his PACE plan for achieving the 2020 goal, known as "On PACE to 66 percent by 2020." Currently 43 percent of adult Utahns have either a degree or a program certificate.
The goal has been adopted by the State Board of Education, Utah System of Higher Education, Governor's Education Excellence Commission and Prosperity 2020 — a public/private partnership aimed at improving educational outcomes. A resolution to support the 66 percent benchmark is currently being considered by the Legislature.
"We’ve proposed nearly $300 million of new money in this budget alone to put into education," Herbert said. "If we could continue to do that, and I think we are capable with a growing economy to do that, we’d have significant improvement in our educational outcomes."
The PACE plan — which stands for preparing young learners, access for all students, completing certificates and degrees and economic success — calls for targeted investments to expand early intervention and at-risk support programs, expand enrollment and scholarships and provide resources for women pursuing or returning to complete higher education.
It calls for tripling the number of certificates awarded through the Utah College of Applied Technology, which Jared Haines, UCAT spokesman, said requires an annual increase of roughly 13 percent.
Haines said enrollment initiatives have kept UCAT on track to meet the goal, but many programs, particularly those in high demand for employment, require increased funding to avoid a wait-listing bottleneck.
"The programs they do have are full," he said. "They need to increase capacity. We often have people lining up for those."
The Utah College of Applied Technology reached record highs for both program completion and job placement in 2012, according to school officials. The campuses of UCAT reported that 87 percent of students who earned a certification were hired in their field or placed in additional education. Eighty-one percent of enrolled students completed their programs, up six percent from 2011.
“These completion and placement rates are a reflection of UCAT's success and focus on training for the jobs and skills that Utah companies need most," UCAT President Rob Brems said in a prepared statement. "Our campuses are on track with our mission to meet the needs of Utah's employers for technically skilled workers."
PACE also calls for investments at both the grade school and post-secondary levels for expansion of science, technology, engineering and mathematics — collectively known as STEM — programs.
Herbert's budget seeks a $20 million investment into higher education STEM courses — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — with the understanding that institutions of higher learning will match that figure internally.
"The college and university presidents all recognize how important STEM education is as far as alignment goes with the demands of the marketplace," he said. "They themselves, voluntarily, are realigning their own budgets to put up another $20 million to match with my $20 million, for a total of $40 million for STEM education starting this next year."
He said education officials are looking at a number of innovations to get the most out of the state's available funding, such as expansion of concurrent enrollment, online and remote learning programs to give students a head start and access to higher education. He also highlighted computer adaptive testing, which is designed to better enable teachers to tailor instruction to individual student's needs.
Is it enough?
If Herbert's funding plan for schools is approved by the Legislature, it will not change Utah's place as the lowest per-pupil spending state in the country. But Herbert said the per-pupil figures do not paint a complete picture of the quality of education in the state and do not account for the gains Utah has made in responding to and navigating the recession.
"We actually are hiring more teachers," he said. "Other states are laying teachers off because they have an economy that’s growing smaller, not growing larger."
Herbert said that Utah's large families and young median age skew the numbers on a per-pupil basis, but represent a strong and productive labor force.
"It's young, it's energetic, it's productive, it's technologically advanced and it's bilingual," he said. "We are developing, and have developed, really, the workforce of the future, which businesses are coming here to, in fact, take advantage of."