The Utah Legislature moved quickly last week to undertake a massive revision of public education laws in an effort that is part housekeeping and part stage-setting for important school funding and policy matters to come later. Critical among these are efforts to address the unequal way schools are funded because property tax revenues vary from district to district.
The last time the state overhauled education codes was in the 1950s. Since then, many obsolete statutes have cluttered the books and made new policy initiatives unnecessarily complicated. One area of policy that needs to be addressed has to do with the amount of funding raised for school districts through local property taxes.
District boundaries in Utah date back to 1916, and population and demographic changes over time have led to inequalities in how much funding districts can expect from local property taxes relative to other districts. Wealthier areas with high property values can contribute more to local schools than less affluent districts, which struggle to keep up.
The state equally distributes funding to students through the weighted pupil unit, but districts also rely on locally generated property taxes. Schools in wealthier areas tend to receive disproportionately more funding than other schools. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that young families, with children bound for public school, tend to locate in areas with more affordable housing. This means districts with lower relative tax receipts end up becoming the districts with the highest demand for services. Lawmakers are constitutionally bound to offer equal educational opportunities to all students and, fortunately, lawmakers and the governor seem poised to take on that task on this session.18 comments on this story
The equalization issue has been debated in the past but has stalled because a solution would require increased spending on the state level, beyond funding the weighted pupil units and keeping up with new enrollment. The question of whether Utah is spending enough money on public schools is a separate issue from equalization. Regardless of how much is spent, it should be disbursed to the equal benefit of all students. In his proposed budget, Gov. Gary Herbert asked lawmakers to spend $25 million on property tax equalization — a request we hope is favorably received.
As always, issues pertinent to education and school funding will be front and center during the current session. It’s good to see lawmakers promptly get to work on clearing out old laws to make way for new and necessary initiatives and to see to it that students have equal access to quality education regardless of ZIP code.