There's a big difference between equality and equity.
We may all be born equal, but that's where equity ends. Who, when, and where we are born creates significant inequities and they're perpetuated through life. And school districts are no different from people in that they vary considerably in their potentials to generate money and the demands on the funds once they are generated.Utah's rural school districts are painfully aware of inequities in school financing, and hoping to address the issue during upcoming legislative sessions.
The centerpiece of the legislative package of the Utah Rural Schools Association, introduced during a convention this week in Price, is a call for equity for the state's students.
How does inequity happen, when the state's basic education program is founded on equalization of the bulk of the funds that underwrite education?
That isn't hard to figure out. The state's contribution to education, to begin with, leaves approximately 25 percent of the average budget for the local districts to raise. They are more or less able to raise the money and sweeten it, depending on local circumstances.
Distance and population numbers are significant factors in school financing. Many of the rural districts are in areas where the economy is stagnant or where student populations are dwindling, not growing as they are along the Wasatch Front.
A rural district's share of the funds equalized at the state level may be so small that it is essentially ineffectual.
If the Legislature, for instance, appropriates $200,000 for technology, the share in a very small district can amount to only a few hundred dollars - hardly enough to purchase a computer, let alone develop a comprehensive program. The small districts simply do not have the latitude larger ones do to capitalize on the money they receive.
The call for equity is just. Students in the far-flung rural counties of Utah should have educational opportunities equal to those of their peers in larger and more prosperous districts.
The gap between philosophy and practice is enormous, however. How to accomplish equity is no simple matter.
The rural cry for more educational equity will likely compete in the upcoming legislative session with a proposal by Rep. Nolan Karras, R-Roy, that would allow districts the option of putting a surtax on income to augment education funds.
I'm keeping an open mind on that proposal. On the surface it appears fair to allow taxpayers to add to their own burden if they choose to pay more to improve and embellish their educational programs.
That such a proposal would add to inequities that already exist, however, seems a foregone conclusion - a wider spread between the haves and the have-nots. Concern has already been raised that the option would contribute to elitism in the state's rich districts.
The theory is that every district would hop onto the bandwagon once they saw how the extra money added to the educational opportunity in the districts that opted for more taxes. The reality is that there are districts in Utah whose citizens can't bear any more taxes.
Grand County springs to mind. The near-demise of the uranium industry in the county has created a crisis in education. Moab schools are operating on four-day weeks to cut operation costs. Teachers are being burdened with larger classes and getting no more pay for their efforts.
Other districts have particular problems that would prevent putting more money into education, even if the desire were there. Widening disparities that already exist would not be wise. Education is a common benefit. If it is subpar in rural Utah, the whole state suffers.
Prepare to hear more about equity in the coming months. The rural schools association is seeking a study on the matter, and it's an issue worth examining.