It would be hard to argue that Gov. Gary Herbert’s proposed fiscal budget for 2015 short-changes education. The governor is asking for the largest increase in public school funding in a quarter century.
This reflects the good economic times in which Utah finds itself once again. Estimates are the state will see $638 million in revenue growth for purposes of crafting this budget. But even that doesn’t account for all of the governor’s proposed largesse. He wants to remove earmarks for transportation, use that money for education and begin a much-needed discussion at the Legislature about whether, and how, to raise the state’s gasoline tax.
More on that in a minute, but first a caution about education spending. While it’s good to increase the weighted pupil unit and give school districts the opportunity to provide meaningful teacher pay raises, money alone isn’t going to improve how Utah’s children are taught. Innovation and accountability remain necessary ingredients.
While the governor was unveiling his budget, representatives from Utah’s business community were meeting with educators in a summit designed to make public and higher education more effective in preparing students for the real world. The message business leaders had to give was not encouraging. A poll by Dan Jones & Associates found a growing gap between what students learn and what they need to learn to succeed.
Ninety percent of employers said this deficit is particularly glaring when it comes to knowing how to write and communicate orally, while 81 percent cited a lack of critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills among graduates. Some business leaders say they must go out of state in order to find suitable workers.
Not all of these problems can be solved with money alone. Innovations, such as class flipping — allowing students to watch lectures online and then come to class to apply concepts learned — can compensate for high student-teacher ratios. Greater choices in education would allow competitive forces to enhance some of these changes. Common Core standards should be taught and measured.
But clearly the state must get serious — as serious about this as it is about funding. Utah’s economic future depends on it.
Herbert’s spending plan, particularly concerning the funding shift from transportation to education, is an ambitious one that probably won’t be popular among lawmakers (although at least one has proposed increasing the income tax to enhance education). With long-term projections showing an increasing need for transportation spending, however, it may be that the time for such a discussion never has been better.
Gas taxes — currently 24.5 cents per gallon — do not generate enough revenue to keep pace with needs. Cars have become more fuel-efficient, and alternative fuels promise to take an increasing share of the market. As a result, the state uses an increasing amount of general fund money to build and maintain roads. Gas taxes are user fees and are better suited for that purpose, however.
Some have suggested making the gas tax a sales tax, a percentage added to the purchase price. The current drop in prices, however, indicates how volatile such a tax would be.
While we hope lawmakers do indeed engage in this discussion, we also agree with Herbert’s desire to do away with the sales tax earmark. Lawmakers are elected to make difficult decisions. Earmarks put budgets on autopilot. That may make life easier for politicians, but it does not serve the public’s interests.
If the governor’s proposed budget demonstrates anything, it is that governing does not necessarily become easier in good times than in bad. Difficult philosophical questions must be tackled, and they no longer can be put off with the explanation that times are tough.
The state’s bright economic picture, however, should be seen as a great opportunity to set a strong course for future growth.