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66 by 2020: Utah has 7 years to reach college degree goal and top the nation

Published: Sunday, April 28 2013 2:45 p.m. MDT

“What we do with first-graders this year, you’re not going to see some of these things in graduation rates until somewhere beyond 2020,” he said. “It’s not a matter of once you get there you’re going to be there, because it’s going to take some ongoing investment and ongoing effort to even maintain that 90 percent once you reach that goal.”

In addition to public and higher education, the 66 by 2020 goal has a third component known as Prosperity 2020 that is made up of partners in the business community.

The official Prosperity 2020 website includes a plan with legislative priorities that were largely addressed by lawmakers during the most recent session. But the plan also includes several options for increasing revenue, such as restoring taxes on food, adjusting the severance tax system and keeping the fuel tax on pace with inflation.

Increasing state revenue has gained little traction among the state's leaders, despite a poll released immediately prior to the most recent session that showed a majority of Utah's voters in support of raising taxes to fund education.

Herbert has stated publicly that the key to funding education is through a strong and growing economy, which he says would be threatened by raising taxes. Other initiatives to find new money for education, such as earmarking state alcohol and liquor sales revenue, fizzled at the Legislature.

And an innovative funding plan by Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, to create public-private partnerships to expand high-quality preschool programs for at-risk children, was shot down by other Republicans in the Legislature.

Marty Carpenter, executive vice president of the Salt Lake Chamber, said the business partners of Prosperity 2020 are opposed to general tax increases but are also open to a discussion on making the tax code more efficient. He said there is potential within tax and budget policy to achieve greater returns on investment.

“We want to make sure we’re innovative in how we’re spending the money so we get the biggest bang for our buck,” he said.

The money question

The costs of education initiatives on a statewide scale are substantial. During the most recent Legislative session, an effort to mandate small class sizes in the lower grades – a key indicator of student performance – stalled quickly when it failed to provide any new funding to schools.

During the Legislative session, Logan School District Superintendent Marshal Garrett estimated that it would cost his district $200,000 to comply with just the cap on kindergarten class sizes. On a state level, more than $100 million is currently allocated to schools each year for class size reduction efforts, which officials say amounts to the average classroom being three students smaller than what it otherwise would be.

The class size reduction bill, as well as other efforts by lawmakers over the years to address education, illustrate the traditional way that schools are pulled in multiple directions in the name of improved performance and efficiency.

In addition to the resolution endorsing the 66 by 2020 goal, lawmakers also approved the creation of an education task force, which signalled an intent to move toward more long-term planning and less reactive legislation from Capitol Hill.

“I don’t think you can overstate what a big step forward that is,” Carpenter said. “Everybody is on the same page, everybody is moving toward the same goal.”

Kearl said the various education entities in the state are being asked to prepare multi-year funding requests and plans to present prior to the legislative session.

"I don't think at any time, at least in my education history, have we ever asked the state superintendent, the president of UCAT and the commissioner of higher education to develop an eight-year plan," Kearl said. "This fall we will have eight-year plans for public ed, UCAT and higher ed."

Budgeting for education in Utah is a perennial challenge, with lawmakers typically focused on funding student growth at their current levels. While it is generally agreed that achieving the 66 by 2020 will require some amount of increased investment, Kearl said it is premature to speculate on what revenue and budget steps will need to be taken before the actual requests from public and higher education have been presented.

"I think that's probably the elephant in the room, that's the question that everyone would like to have answered," she said. "We'll know better once we get our eight-year plans this fall. We'll have a better indication of what our revenues look like, what it's going to take to pull this off, can we do it with existing revenues that are forecast or is it going to take some additional resources."

Buhler spoke positively about what has been accomplished so far in reaching the goal, but added that a lot can happen between now and 2020.

“This year we did make some significant progress,” Buhler said. “That doesn’t mean it’s going to be all downhill from here, we have a lot of work to do still.”

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com

Twitter: bjaminwood

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