Does Utah face an education crisis because of low per-pupil spending? Should some transportation funding be transferred to schools? Is it time for a tax increase for public education? Pignanelli and Webb weigh in.

Utah spends less per public school pupil than any state in the country. Legislators are exploring whether to provide every student a mobile electronic device. Gov. Gary Herbert wants the school budget to keep pace with growth. Business and community leaders are promoting an education reform initiative called Prosperity 2020. These are expensive propositions that raise important questions.

Does Utah face an educational crisis because of low per-pupil spending?

Pignanelli: "Politics moves the pieces. Education changes the game.”

Jonathan Sacks

A phenomenal birthrate and dramatic increases in population have been a constant in Utah since 1847. Currently, 30 percent of Utahns are under the age of 18. Thus, the public education system is always in crisis management (a situation similar to raising teenagers).

Our state prioritizes families with multiple children, which provide so many blessings. (Blessing is an appropriate adjective for my children, as I often utilize sacred names at a high-decibel level when expressing my opinion on their activities.) Because of these dynamics, Utah ranks the lowest per student expenditure. To raise our standing 10 places requires a massive increase of taxes that is practically and politically impossible. So Utah leaders squeeze to get the most of each dollar. With the help of dedicated teachers, our schools do a great job, thereby deflecting any horrors of a crisis.

Utah’s population will double in the next several decades, demanding greater resources for educating our children. Efficiencies can always be maximized, but additional resources — from whatever source — are needed to maintain and enhance quality.

Webb: Utah schools aren’t terrible, but they are mediocre, especially when compared with schools in states with similar demographics. Young people ill-prepared for work or college are a major long-term threat to Utah’s economy and family economic security. More money is definitely needed, but it must be accompanied with meaningful school reform and better governance. Some excellent reform proposals, including increased use of technology in schools, are emerging from a number of school reform groups. Increased funding should be tied to significant reforms that will improve student performance and prepare students for high-tech jobs in a competitive global economy.

Utah highways seem to be funded reasonably well, and some education advocates resent the level of highway funding. Should some transportation funding be transferred to schools?

Pignanelli: Every function of state government receives less money than the amount of need. So the governor and the Legislature must be cautious to avoid the perception that one department is funded at the expense of another. There must be a clear articulation of priorities. Otherwise, it becomes a battle of clichés: "Don't pave over our kids!" vs. "Safety for our children begins on the road!"

Webb: Rapid population growth means future multi-billion-dollar shortfalls in education funding, transportation funding and water-project funding. All three need more money, not less. Leading advocates of funding for all three need to get together and figure out how to make a joint case to the Legislature and the public to deal with major funding needs. Otherwise, a funding train wreck and big battles are ahead.

Funding for those three areas has occurred in silos, with advocates sometimes fighting over the same dollars. Clearly, water and transportation funding should come primarily from users, which means the gas tax (or some equivalent) and water use fees. However, everyone benefits from good transportation infrastructure and clean water, so general fund money is also a legitimate funding source.

Transportation funding has enjoyed support because transportation advocates have a 20-year plan specifying precisely how much money is needed, how it will be used and what improved outcomes will result.

But education advocates can’t say how much money they need over the next 20 years, how new money will be used or what improvements and outcomes can be guaranteed. Education will be at a serious disadvantage for new funding until advocates have a realistic, unambiguous plan.

Is it time for a tax increase for public education?

Pignanelli: If the Legislature struggles with Medicaid expansion (without the burden of a tax increase), raising taxes for public education will be a huge lift. However, Sen. Pat Jones offers a solution that's politically palatable and practical. Republican and Democratic legislators are intrigued with her idea to eliminate the state income tax deduction for dependent children — which raises $500 million — and allow local school districts and school councils to determine how the money is spent. The Jones proposal enhances local control of the dollars, does not increase the basic income tax rate but infuses enough resources to make a difference. Sen. Jones is retiring, but her bold idea may live for generations as the plan that saved education.

Webb: It is time for a reasonable tax increase, but only if new money is targeted at particular programs and initiatives guaranteed to improve specific outcomes. Survey research shows Utahns would support a tax increase for education if they know it will be used effectively. Utah’s tax effort for public schools has declined in the last several years. With so many children, public education ought to be a Utah strength, not a weakness. It will take more money and some hard-nosed reform for Utah to shine nationally and internationally.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and a Deseret News managing editor. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as House minority leader.