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Richard Davis: Republicans keep starving Utah public education

Published: Wednesday, March 20 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Hundreds of Utah educators and parents gather Monday, March 11, 2013 at the Utah State Capitol in support of the public education funding.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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The governor and the Legislature are being praised for funding public education this year, after several years of education budget cuts. However, I’m not cheering. Instead, let’s put this in perspective.

Yes, they increased the weighted per pupil unit by 2 percent. Finally, they are providing the funds for next year’s students and making up for last year’s funding mistake. Yes, they provided $10 million for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).

The most important thing they did not do, however, is create a long-term plan for lifting Utah’s public education system out of its status as the least funded education system in the nation. There is no vision for how to reduce class sizes, hire more teachers, raise teachers’ pay, increase the quality and professional development of teachers, and better prepare all of Utah’s public education students for the future. Not only should there be a long term plan for improving public education, there must be a detailed road map for how to fund that effort.

Education is underfunded in Utah, plain and simple. Utah spends the least per pupil of any state in the nation, by far. The Legislature’s actions this session did little to rectify that problem. The extra $57 per student won’t go far to address the severe funding shortage. Utah is $800 below the 49th state in the nation in per-pupil funding. At that rate, Utah will catch up with the next state in 13 years. That’s assuming the other states stop increasing their spending, which won’t happen.

Granted, Utah has never been the top ranked state in per pupil funding. But it wasn’t always last either. In 1960, Utah ranked 37th. Now, the state spending per pupil is $4,000 below the national average. That means Utah spends only slightly more than half the national average per pupil. While Utah spends approximately $6,000 per child, Wyoming spends over $15,000.

Are these merely statistics or does spending so much less on each Utah school child mean anything? It means less attention for that student from a teacher. It means more overworked teachers in the classroom. It means fewer women being mentored to go on to college. It means students’ performance on standardized tests is slightly above the national average when, given Utah’s demographics, it should be at the top. And it means that high school graduation rates are declining compared with a decade ago.

Who is to blame for putting Utah’s schoolchildren in this position? It lies squarely on the shoulders of state government leaders — governors and the Republican majority of the Legislature for the past 15 years who have failed to make public education a priority in more than just rhetoric.

While saying education is their priority, over the past 15 years, governors and legislators have proposed budgets that allocate less and less of Utah’s wealth for education. According to the Utah Foundation, Utah’s funding effort for education has declined dramatically since the mid-1990s. In 1995, Utah was seventh in the nation in the percentage of personal income dedicated to education. By 2009, Utah was 26th. That has happened because legislators have failed to find the revenues for education.

Actually, instead of finding revenues, they’ve cut them. They cut taxes on the most affluent Utahns that resulted in the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars for education. They’ve cut property taxes that were going to education, with similar effect. They’ve forced public education and higher education to compete for the same funds.

They shrank the education budget compared to what Utahns could afford, while poll after poll showed Utahns willing to pay higher taxes for education. Gov. Gary Herbert claimed that “if we increase incomes … public education funding increases.” Incomes have increased in Utah over the past 15 years, but not public education funding relative to those incomes.

Dear Gov. Herbert and Republican legislators: If public education is such a priority, go get the revenues to fund it adequately. Stop claiming you love public education while financially starving it.

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.

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