SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns widely recognize education as an area that deserves a larger investment in state dollars, and most people are at least somewhat willing to pay more for the long-term benefits that could come from that investment.
That's according to data released Thursday by Envision Utah, which surveyed some 53,000 residents about several issues driving Utah's overall quality of life.
"Not only did education rank very highly among all of the topics about the future, it also is one of the topics with the greatest degree of unanimity," said Robert Grow, president and CEO of Envision Utah. "I think big picture, what we're seeing is strong consensus and a very strong push toward making sure education is where we spend our money, our resources and our energy in the future."
But raising taxes or diverting funds from other priorities aren't steps Utahns take lightly, and respondents are asking for a targeted approach to education funding.
For decades, Utah has been last in the country when it comes to per-student spending. In 2013, Utah spent $6,555 on each student, compared to the national average of $10,700, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
It's a statistic Utahns hear often, but state and education leaders have questioned its worth as part of a constructive conversation toward real solutions. Even bringing Utah up to the national average in per-pupil spending would take an extra $2.35 billion in new revenue, which would require almost doubling the personal income tax rate, according to Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who heads the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee.
Instead, Utahns in the survey identified specific inputs, such as teacher compensation and training, rigorous standards and assessments, technology, and affordable tuition, as key starting points in making Utah a top-10 state in student performance.
"It's a good list, but it's also targeting the right things," said Martin Bates, superintendent of the Granite School District and co-chairman of the Education Action Team that helped develop the study. "It's not just throwing money, but it's strategic and it's targeted, and I think it identifies the right areas that really will make the difference and get us to where it is we want to go."
Members of the action team — a group of lawmakers, industry leaders, advocacy groups and educators appointed by the governor — projected what certain investments could mean for Utah.
For example, increasing the state's investment in education by 3.4 percent each year until 2020, coupled with research-backed strategies, could increase the high school graduation rate by 5 percent, raise the portion of adults with a college education by 8 percent, increase median earnings by 4 percent and lower the poverty rate by 6 percent, according to the team's projections.
If Utah further increased its education investment by 5 percent each year until 2020, implemented a long-range improvement plan, adopted rigorous standards and ongoing assessments, as well as affordable tuition schedules, the benefits are even greater. Graduation rates could increase by 8 percent, adults with a college degree would go up by 21 percent, poverty would go down by 17 percent and the state could earn almost half a billion dollars in tax revenue, the survey states.
Roughly 3.4 percent of the 5 percent increase could likely be covered by anticipated budget surpluses in the coming years, according to Grow. But not all Utahns are ready to make up the rest through a tax increase.
In a random sample, 39 percent of respondents said they weren't willing to raise taxes, 28 percent said they were willing, and 34 percent said they were only somewhat willing. When asked whether they favored diverting funds from water and road projects, 31 percent said they were unwilling, 22 percent said they were willing, and the vast majority — 47 percent — said they were only somewhat willing to make the tradeoff.
"This one has a wide 'somewhat willing' category, which I view as an invitation of Utahns for educators and the Legislature and the governor to explain how the money would be spent on highly leveraged strategies that will really make education better," Grow said.
When compared to other topics in the "Your Utah, Your Future" survey, education came in fourth place based on the level of concern residents had for the future. Education had 9.8 percent of their share of preference, behind 10.9 percent for water, 11.1 percent for air quality, and 14.2 percent for jobs and economy.
But Grow said Utahns recognize investing in education brings improvement in several areas as the population becomes better trained and prepared for the workforce.
"Water ranks in every survey in the top one or two most important things for Utahns because I think they are feeling uncertain about the future of water," he said. "There will always be competing priorities, but Utahns view that education has such a wide spectrum of benefits. But I think it's always going to rank right at or near the top."
This year, the Utah Legislature designated $512 million in new money for education, with a 4 percent increase to the weighted pupil unit, Utah's formula for equalized student funding. The new state dollars were largely thanks to a revenue surplus beyond initial estimates as well as a $75 million increase in property taxes.
Bates said for Utah to achieve the long-term educational outcomes Utahns want, it will take consistent legislative support year after year for quality teachers, high-quality early childhood education, collaboration with families and communities, and other strategies.
"This past year was an outstanding year, one that we haven't seen the like of in a decade or more," he said. "But to make real systemic change, we'll need to do that again several times in a row, and policymakers will need to target it at the very things that are described here" in the survey.
Scott Anderson, president of Zions Bank, said the survey gives policymakers a roadmap to crafting effective measures for improvement.
"Utahns value education. They're willing to pay more than they are now through increased taxes to ensure Utah has a better education," Anderson said. "They want it because they believe it's key to a strong economy. They want it because they believe it's the key to better and safer communities, and they want it because they believe that it's really the only way for all Utahns to have a chance to succeed.
"I was heartened by that," he said.