SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is expected to gain about 385,000 K-12 students by 2050, but state leaders are past due in planning and preparing for future growth while ensuring adequate school funding and satisfactory student performance.
That's the message from a Utah Foundation report released Thursday that takes a look at what education in the state could be like given the growth and increasing ethnic diversity over the next 35 years.
State leaders and educators are in the process of developing a 10-year statewide education plan, but "inadequate policy responses" to education needs up to now have caused Utah to fall behind in its support for schools and the academic achievement of its students, the report states.
Utah Foundation research director Shawn Teigen, who wrote the report, said having a comprehensive 10-year plan for education would help keep the state from "slipping" backward.
"The benefit of a statewide comprehensive education plan is that you can hopefully keep an eye on the prize of making sure that we're effectively educating our students and that we're having high success in higher education, not making policy changes that could potentially erode some of the successes that we've had," Teigen said.
The report says policy decisions over the past 20 years have led to low per-pupil funding and a low funding effort from taxpayers, causing class sizes to grow and college tuition to rise. This is in part because of prerecession tax cuts, putting Utah's tax burden at a 20-year low in 2012, according to the foundation.
"That decreasing tax burden is on the shoulders of the educational system," Teigen said. "You might say that we're just really super efficient in education and we can take those cuts. But we've also had an increase in tuition, and our national test score rankings have decreased. If that's any indication of how we're doing, it's somewhat problematic."
During that time, Utah has moved from the top of the national pack to the middle for most K-12 test scores and college completion rates, though the state is making steady gains in some areas.
The state is expected to have close to 1 million K-12 students in 35 years, an increase of 64 percent. Much of the growth will take place in areas already heavily populated, such as Salt Lake County, which is expected to gain more than 80,000 students. Utah County's expected growth is 120,000 students, accounting for one-third of the state's overall student growth, according to the report.
This growth will add to the already existing pressure on classroom sizes and teacher needs. Currently, Utah has the third-highest student-per-teacher ratio in the nation of 21.6, the report states.
Educators and policymakers, as they seek to lower class sizes, will have to consider where the growth is strongest when deciding where infrastructure expansion will be most effective, according to Pamela Perlich, senior research economist for the University of Utah's Bureau of Economics and Business Research.
"Just because the growth occurs in the short run, it might not make sense to put in infrastructure if that growth won't be sustained in the long run," Perlich said. "I think if we're going to make smart decisions about the future, we have to be looking at these kinds of long-term demographic projections."
Another challenge for education is that it's unlike other industries that can increase their efficiency by relying less on people and more on technology. But keeping class sizes low requires manpower, a problem often called "cost disease."
"You've got a high labor industry with education. You've got teachers teaching students," Teigen said.
There is some good news. Age demographics in Utah and throughout the country are changing in a way that could increase per-pupil funding through a decreasing dependency ratio.
"What that means is that youth as a share of the population declines. So we have more working people per child to be able to fund education more fully," Perlich said. "With fewer kids per working age person, Utah's education funding should come to more closely resemble what it is nationally."
While state leadership hasn't yet implemented a comprehensive 10-year plan, it has endorsed goals similar to plans proposed by Prosperity 2020 and Education First, two nonprofits headed by Utah business leaders. Gov. Gary Herbert has adopted a state goal to have two-thirds of Utah's working population — ages 25 to 64 — with a college degree or certificate in the next five years.
The report recommends that Utah's comprehensive plan include elements from Prosperity 2020 and Education First's five-year plan, as well as results from the Legislature's Education Task Force and other groups. It also calls for measures to protect education funding sources.
Tami Pyfer, education adviser to the governor, said three main stakeholders — public education, higher education and the Utah College of Applied Technology — are each contributing to the plan's development through the governor's office. She said the plan will give lawmakers a framework to work from as they create education legislation.
"This needs to be a plan that we can engage the Legislature with so that we don't have distractions year after year, policy-wise," Pyfer said. "We need to stay the course."
Pyfer said the three stakeholders are expected to complete their contributions by September, and the governor’s Education Excellence Commission will blend the ideas together into the final plan. On May 19, the plan as it stands will be discussed in a public meeting at the Capitol with various stakeholders.
"I’m excited about the direction we’re taking with this 10-year plan," she said.
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