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Deseret Morning News graphic

On paper, Utah public schools look flush with cash, pulling in about a billion extra dollars over the past 10 years.

Yet class sizes remain huge. Teacher salaries are below the national average. And Utah — still — has the lowest per-student funding in the country.

Why?

And what will it take for Utah to get ahead?

Doing something about education is on the public's mind. Thirty-six percent of Utahns surveyed by Dan Jones & Associates for the Deseret Morning News and KSL-TV say education should be the Legislature's main issue this year. No other topic, including tax cuts, came close to that level of interest.

Just over half of Utah small-business owners say the state needs to increase school funding — a somewhat surprise return on a poll conducted by the National Federation of Independent Business — with some of the state's $1.6 billion in one-time surplus funds and ongoing revenue growth. The federation has up to 4,500 member businesses; federation state director Candace Daly said.

"It's been below 50 percent the last few times they've polled," she said. "I was pleasantly surprised, because I really do think a little more money needs to be put in public education and higher education. Throwing dollars at anything doesn't fix it, but starving someone of funds can hurt."

In the past 10 years, the schools budget, looking at state dollars alone, has grown about 50 percent, from $1.4 billion to $2.1 billion, according to the Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst. It's up about 58 percent, from $1.9 billion to $3 billion, if federal and other dollars are counted.

Lawmakers last year gave schools a $243 million infusion, an increase of nearly 10 percent, the analyst's office reports. "It was the largest nominal increase in the history of the state," said Mike Jerman, vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association.

It also was the first year in a decade that the budget increase exceeded the growth in Utahns' personal income, said Stephen Kroes, executive director of the Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan group that examines Utah issues and trends.

"If we keep having years like that ... I think that's going to have a good chance of making an improvement," Kroes said.

But the public sentiment is that the public schools are financially starving, and getting thrown bones at best. Last year, legislators also gave tax relief, and public school advocates saw that as money taken away from schools. All income tax revenues go to schools and colleges.

"That's why a lot of legislators are frustrated," Jerman said. "They were hoping to get some accolades last year ... and all they heard was that the Legislature was cutting education spending."

The money going to schools, however, isn't making any visible change in some things dear to parents, students and teachers, perhaps deepening the perception.

Utah's average per-student spending went up more than 70 percent to $5,092 per student by 2003, but it remains the lowest in the country. It would take $461 million just to get to second-to-last place, and $1.6 billion to get to the national average of $8,468 per student.

Utah's average teacher salary rose 22 percent in the past decade to $39,456, but the national ranking has moved only from 42nd to 38th.

Class sizes remain the nation's largest, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Considering that $243 million of the $700 million in new state money over the decade came just last year, it's no surprise its effects aren't evident yet, Kroes said.

Exactly where did it go?

More than 90 percent went to maintaining the system, from giving teachers money to keep up with the cost of living to rising insurance and energy costs, the State Office of Education reports.

Enrollment climbed 9 percent in the past decade to about 515,000 students, but the rolls are expected to grow by 150,000 in the next 10 years, the State Office of Education reports.

"Public education is a huge enterprise, with more than 40,000 direct employees in the state of Utah. We serve half a million children each school day," said Patrick Ogden, state associate superintendent. "When we're talking those kind of numbers, it takes a large amount of money just to keep the system afloat."

The State Board of Education says it needs an increase of more than $341 million to keep up next year. It wants an overall 20 percent funding increase to address student achievement and a teacher shortage, among other initiatives.

The amount is close to the governor's proposal for an 18.2 percent hike.

That kind of cash could be in the cards, considering this year's surplus and new money. But a chunk of it — proposals have ranged from $100 million to $300 million — is likely to be returned to the people via tax cuts. Other state agencies are clamoring for new money, too. And with the growth wave, Kroes believes it will be extra tough to give schools enough money to make big financial gains.

Is there any way to get ahead?

Many on Capitol Hill say they want more money for schools. It's just that it might come with strings.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, is talking about $200 million for teacher pay raises, but with a focus on merit- and differential pay for those with high-demand credentials, such as math, science and special education. Reform efforts also are in the offing, including proposals to provide government vouchers for private school tuition, aimed at giving parents more school choices and injecting competition to make all schools better.

"We need to continue to do all that we can, continue putting pressure to raise the spending level for public education," Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said in a recent interview about school vouchers. "But there are other things that have to be taken into account seriously, that have to be on the table."

Not everyone will agree on how school money should be spent. Maybe that's part of why it's hard for the public to see the effect more money has had on public schools. The state, suggests Jordan District Superintendent Barry Newbold, lacks a universally supported vision.

"I'm not being critical, because putting together a state vision and plan for education is no small task," he said. "But without something like that, we just go from individual priority to priority each year without focusing on major issues that make big differences."

With growth and maintenance expected to gobble up the bulk of the new dollars, Utah schools could get caught in a holding pattern for the next few years, Kroes said.

"One of the biggest political risks you face when you talk about education is to (fall into a) throw-up-our-hands-in-despair mentality, that we can put all this money in education, but will we see (a difference?)" Kroes said. "That's the question that crosses the minds of legislators when asking for this huge commitment of funds."


E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com