The Utah Legislature will adjourn tomorrow. Over the past 44 days, the Legislature has had the opportunity to enact major change in education funding. Once again, it has failed to do so.
According to news reports, the Legislature will agree to a nearly $200 million increase in the public education budget. That may sound like a lot, but it constitutes only a 4 percent increase over current spending. Since Utah is about $4,000 below the national average in per capita spending on public education, at the rate of a 3-4 percent increase (which is what the Legislature typically does in the rosiest of economic conditions), it would take 20 years for Utah to catch up to the national average.
Utahns want a solution to education spending now. Two months ago, a Utah Policy poll found that improving education was the top priority of Utahns. Moreover, in another Utah Policy poll, a strong majority of Utahns favored the Our Schools Now initiative that would increase the income tax rate from 5 percent to 5.875 percent and, therefore, provide a $750 million annual infusion to public schools.
The business community is advocating a major investment in education for the state. Zions Bank CEO Scott Anderson called on the governor and the Legislature to undertake a “moon shot” on public education or a major funding boost. Instead, they have funded enough for a backyard toy rocket.
Legislators are in the habit of kicking the can down the road. Small, incremental change is all they will do. For example, Gov. Gary Herbert and legislative leaders immediately voiced opposition to OSN. They refuse to take others’ ideas for education funding, but won’t generate their own.
Legislators claim over and over that when they spend money on other areas it spills over into education. Their rhetoric is flowery; their reality is something else. They have constructed a process that systematically robs education, even when state coffers are flush. For example, the state income tax used to be allocated solely for K-12 education. Now, it is divided between K-12 and higher education. That means the two entities are competing for the same pie. It also means that legislators can allocate more of other sources of revenue elsewhere rather than higher education.
Most recently, legislators claim that the recent massive amount of spending on transportation will create more jobs and generate more income tax revenue for the state. We have heard this bedtime story before. It is no less fictional today. Transportation spending in the past has not resulted in more spending for education. We are still not getting more than a 3-4 percent increase, regardless of economic growth.
They also claim that since they spend a majority of new money on education, they are education advocates. However, they strongly influence that flow of revenue into the state’s coffers. When they give tax breaks to various companies that do not dramatically stimulate the economy, they are robbing education funding. When they refuse to support an initiative that is supported by the vast majority of Utahns, they are robbing education funding.
The governor should take the lead in pressuring the Legislature to increase dramatically the level of education financing. Gov. Herbert wants the state’s public education system to excel, as do we all. But it will not do so without sufficient funding. Just as roads and bridges do not magically repair themselves without funds, schools do not magically improve without adequate spending for lowering class size to facilitate more individual instruction, professional development and salary increases to retain and attract teachers.
Gov. Herbert and legislators have the power, and the duty, to lead out in creating a vision for stimulating education funding. That he does not do so cripples our children as they prepare for the global economy of the 21st century. They continue to fail our children — Utah’s future.
If they persist in doing so, Utahns should elect legislators who will make education a priority. Now is the time for pro public education minded individuals, regardless of party, to consider stepping forward and changing the status quo that our governor and legislators are stuck in. It may determine our future.