By now, the standard talking points on education funding are well-known. Utah is 51st in the nation for per-pupil funding. Over 1 billion dollars have been taken from the annual K-12 education budget. And we have a teacher shortage coupled with problems retaining teachers exacerbated by low starting salaries for those majoring in education.
As we head into the legislative session, almost everyone agrees more needs to be done to adequately fund our public schools. A Utah Policy poll recently showed that 83 percent of Utahns feel it is important to increase per-pupil spending, with 55 percent saying it is “very important” to do so. Community groups and associations continue to advocate for more funding year after year. And high-profile business leaders are rallying behind a ballot initiative to raise the income tax to invest a much-needed $750 million into our schools.
With such overwhelming public support behind providing our schools with the money they need to succeed, why then are we still dealing with the most poorly funded education system in the country? Because when push comes to shove, our elected officials are simply unwilling to do what it takes to have quality, adequately funded public schools.
Take Gov. Gary Herbert as an example. To his credit, Herbert made education funding his priority in his budget proposal, proposing about $200 million be directed to public education this year. However, just covering our annual estimated growth in enrollment will cost $68 million of this amount, and the remainder won’t change our bottom ranking in per-pupil funding. It is also woefully insufficient to begin reversing the teacher shortage. His proposal also falls half a billion dollars short of the Our Schools Now initiative, which a majority of Utahns support.
Standing by Herbert’s side are Speaker Greg Hughes, President Wayne Niederhauser and other legislators who have already begun trying to explain away the desire for major funding reform during this session. They say recaptured internet sales taxes will soon be flowing to our schools, even though those funds are not constitutionally guaranteed to do so. Despite 20 years of inaction, they insist there are other ways to solve the problem, including closing various tax exemptions. And in a sure sign of political punting, some are calling for yet another task force to study the issue, claiming more time is needed to study this issue we have been studying for years.
Unfortunately, the truth is our politicians routinely give lip service to the importance of education and claim funding our schools is their top priority, but year after year they do little more than cover projected student growth. But with every year that passes without this needed money, Utah’s children are shortchanged — passing through school without the resources that could make our mediocre educational outcomes become exceptional. Every year politicians fail to act, the noble education profession continues without the financial means to keep our teachers teaching or to attract new educators to the field.
We should no longer be content with accepting our politicians’ promises to deal with education in some far-off future. We need them to show leadership rather than fearing the consequences of the next election cycle. We need them to provide for our children’s futures because it is the right and necessary thing to do, not as a meager attempt to avoid a lawsuit or initiative. We need to start holding our leaders accountable, and we need them to act now.
Chase Thomas is policy and advocacy counsel for Alliance for a Better Utah.