SALT LAKE CITY — Every year, when asked what is the biggest issue facing public education on the eve of the legislative session, lawmakers, educators and administrators give a similar answer: funding.
Public education is the state's largest tax expenditure, at 48.9 percent of the budget and another 15.2 percent dedicated to higher education. And it's also at the top of the list of importance for Utah's large families as an ever-growing student population keeps per-pupil spending in the state the lowest in the nation.
Those per-pupil allocations make it challenging for schools and school districts to hire staff, leading to large class sizes and a high student-to-counselor ratio. It also creates a difficulty in investing in targeted interventions like early childhood education, literacy and numeracy, graduation rates and college- and career-preparation.
But two bills this year – one sponsored by a Republican senator and one by a Democratic senator – are seeking to reform Utah's tax code to generate additional, ongoing revenue for schools at the local level. The topic of increased revenue is typically anathema to Utah's conservative Legislature, but both sponsors are optimistic about their bill's chances.
"We are going to pass something," Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, said, "something that’s going to generate new money for education and it will most likely be a bill that drives local control over those funds."
Gov. Gary Herbert's proposed budget calls for an additional $261 million in funding for both public and higher education. Elementary and secondary schools make up $157 million of that request, including $64 million for the estimated 10,300 students that will enter the school system next year, $61.6 million to increase per-pupil spending by 2.5 percent and nearly $20 million in targeted investments like all-day kindergarten, classroom supplies and additional school counselors.
Osmond's bill, SB111, would generate an estimated $20 million to $40 million for schools by freezing the state's basic minimum property tax rate.
That rate currently adjusts down when property values increase to remain revenue neutral. But under Osmond's bill the rate would stay fixed, with the ensuing gain in revenue distributed at the local school level on a per-student basis.
"The intent here is to address the funding needs of our high-growth, high-need districts," Osmond said. "As property values increase, we have the benefit of an increase in revenue. That tax rate didn’t change, but because property values increased there is more revenue that comes in."
Another option, presented by Sen. Patricia Jones, D-Salt Lake City — SB118 — would generate hundreds of millions of new dollars for schools by phasing out the state's personal and dependent income tax deductions over a five-year period.
Like Osmond's bill, revenue from Jones' bill would skip school districts and be managed by local school community councils. But Jones' bill would distribute funds on both a per-school and a per-student basis – which would be a boon to small, rural schools – and would generate far greater sums of money.
"It’s the only real, significant, ongoing new money that anybody is talking about," Jones said. "It would be sustained, because as the economy grows this would grow."
But Jones' bill would also disproportionately affect large families accustomed to the dependent tax deductions. Jones said she's aware of that impact but said the the bill encourages personal responsibility and for most people would result in a smaller tax refund as opposed to greater out-of-pocket costs each month.
"It does not raise the tax rate. This is, technically, not a tax increase," she said. "Some people may call it that, because there are some that are currently paying no taxes that are now going to assume some responsibility for what they’re using."
When Jones presented the bill to the Education Interim Committee in October, some lawmakers suggested that she run a companion bill calling for a public vote on the issue of eliminating tax deductions. Jones was initially open to the idea but has since changed her mind, saying that the public's opinion on funding schools is clear.
"I feel like it’s our job as elected leaders to make the hard decisions and that would’ve been a non-binding bill," she said. "I’ve done polling enough to know that the people really want to improve their schools. They don’t want money to go into administrative costs, frankly, which this bill does not. This bill ends up in the school."
Osmond said that he's supportive of many aspects of Jones' bill, particularly that it directs new revenue to local control at the school level. He said he believes the state is not providing the resources necessary to achieve its educational goals. but he said that before he can formally support Jones' bill he needs more information on how it will impact Utahns.
"What I’m not clear on yet is what the impact will be on the families of Utah and especially the most at-risk families," he said. "So I’m holding my final judgement on it until I understand that financially, but In concept I support the direction that (Jones) is heading on this."
"66 by 2020"
Osmond's and Jones' bills come during a year with increased focus on the need for targeted investments to meet the state's long-term education goals, which include a charge that 90 percent of third-grade students read at grade level, a 90 percent statewide high school graduation rate and 66 percent of the adult population holding a degree or certificate, all by the year 2020.
In the year since the Utah Legislature formally adopted that package of goals, generally referred to as "66 by 2020," both public and higher education officials report that they are on track, but that maintaining momentum will be increasingly difficult and costly.
"We’re moving in the right direction in all of our indicators, but probably not moving at the rate right now that we need to move to meet all of those goals by 2020," State Superintendent of Public Instruction Martell Menlove said. "That first 2 percent (of improvement) is probably going to be the easiest to achieve and maybe the least expensive to achieve and so we’re also looking for some type of additional investment as we move toward those things."
One bill that has already received formal support by the State School Board is SB43, which calls for the creation of a grant program to provide extended-day learning opportunities for elementary age children affected by intergenerational poverty.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, calls for $5 million in ongoing funding to provide up to two extra hours each day for student to receive tutoring on core subjects like math and reading.
"I think there will be a sense in the Legislature that this is something proactive we can do that will rescue these children out of poverty and dependency on welfare," Reid said. "All the data show that education is critical in providing the assets they need to be competitive in school."
Reid's bill targets at-risk students in first grade through sixth grade, but another bill by Osmond is discussed in conjunction with Reid's bill for its focus on preschool-aged children affected by intergenerational poverty.
Osmond's bill, SB42, calls for $6 million in annual funding to establish a grant program for school districts to expand their existing high-quality preschool programs. The pre-school programs are voluntary and are targeted toward students affected by intergenerational poverty and English language learners.
"We’ve identified by statute who these kids are and that they do need special intervention to be able to help them get out of this cycle of poverty," Osmond said. "I feel very strongly that there has to be skin in the game. These schools have to show evidence of meeting these high-quality criteria."
Osmond ran with a similar bill last year that called for an innovative funding model where private organizations would lend money to the state to expand preschool and would be repaid with interest if the programs proved successful at keeping students out of special education.
Osmond said he still believes in that model, and would like to see it implemented in the future, but understands that some time with a direct funding model is needed to demonstrate the successes of high quality preschool programs.
"I think this is the model that we need to implement now to get momentum behind the importance and the impact of early education for our most at-risk kids," Osmond said. "Everyone is in agreement that those kids do need a special intervention. That there is a unique challenge. That there really is a skills gap for these groups."
Publicly funded preschool programs have generated some controversy throughout the United States, due to inconclusive data on the long-lasting efficacy of early intervention. While most studies agree that preschool for at-risk students leads to more students entering kindergarten and first grade at grade level, some studies suggest that without continued intervention, those gains are lost by the time an at-risk student leaves elementary school.
"After a year or two the data show that the children will fall behind if they’re not provided supportive efforts along the way," Reid said.
That continued effort is what Reid hopes to accomplish with his extended-day learning bill, which he said would be supported by Osmond's bill but is also capable of standing on its own. Reid has been involved in several statewide efforts to combat intergenerational poverty and said the research indicates that education is key to breaking the poverty cycle.
"(The bill) will help them learn what they need to learn to stay up with their peers day in and day out," Reid said. "But even more so it will give them a sense of confidence that they are learning the information and skills they need to be competitive every day they come into the classroom."
Menlove said the Utah State School Board has not yet taken a formal position on Osmond's and Jones' funding bills or Osmond's preschool bill, though he said that his office had worked with Osmond in preparing the preschool bill as well as a bill by Sen. Howard Stephenson that would increase the number of learning technology devices in schools.
In addition to Reid's bill, the board has formally supported a bill by Rep. Steven Eliason, R-Sandy, that would clarify the types of conversations a teacher can have with a student if they suspect the student is at risk of suicide.
While presenting the bill to the Education Interim Committee in November, Eliason said that despite several steps to reduce suicide in recent years, educators have been hesitant to act out of a misunderstanding of what questions they're allowed to ask in a school setting.
"I felt it extremely necessary to run this bill to clarify that all the other work we’ve done in this category will be in vain if we can’t even talk about (suicide)," he said at the time. "When a suicide happens in a school, it’s a hot potato. They don’t know what to say."
Menlove said that he would like to see the legislative session address increased resources for some of the non-academic functions of schools, such as suicide prevention and anti-bullying efforts.
"I think we’re doing some good things there but I think there are some social-type things that are happening in the schools that I would like to see strengthened," he said.
The State School Board is also asking lawmakers for a 2.7 percent increase in the weighted pupil unit – the basic funding unit for per-pupil allocations – and targeted investments for initiatives on third grade literacy, eighth grade mathematics and the state's graduation rate.
"The board of education is trying to be realistic in looking at the funds that are available and the anticipation of funding that’s available," he said.
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