Education Funding–Thanks for the Start, But a Long Way Remains

Utah State Board of Education Member Kim Burningham

Kim Burningham, Utah State Board of Education, District 5

(Note: In this blog, Mr. Burningham speaks in his own behalf; the point of view expressed in this blog does not necessarily represent any organization of which he is a part.)

With the legislative session completed, evaluation of the work of the 2013 Utah Legislature is appropriate. Observers need to read past the headlines to the bottom line. Here is my interpretation in three parts:

• The Legislature should be commended for making a start.
• But we have only started, a long way remains.
• To solve Utah’s education funding problem, that start will need to snowball into a major effort finding new revenue.

The Legislature should be commended for making a start.
For the past half decade, education funding in Utah has shrunk dramatically. Sure, the economy must share at least part of the blame, but the dismal facts remain. During some of those years growth of students was not even funded. In all of them, Utah’s education dollars stayed at best static. For a state that is funded at the lowest per pupil rate in the nation those facts paint a bleak picture.

Still, I congratulate those legislators who sought to turn that frightening picture around:

  • In the approaching fiscal year, with the exception of some “below the line” items, enrollment growth was funded. Thank you!
  • The basic funding unit, the WPU (Weighted Pupil Unit) was increased by 2 percent. At least 1 percent of the amount is required to fund mandatory retirement costs, but the second 1 percent can be viewed as an increase. Although class sizes will not likely shrink, they should not get larger, and underpaid teachers may see some increase. A move in the right direction!
  • Several key items like STEM (science, technical, engineering, and math) education received additional emphasis. The important early reading program is continued. Although hardly equal to the need, money continues to go towards helping our schools provide the necessary technology. Again, thanks!

But we have only started, a long way remains.
No one should read the above and claim we are solving the education funding problem. Unfortunately, skim reading headlines of some news coverage for the legislative session may lead the superficial reader to believe more than the facts warrant.

To solve Utah’s education funding problem, that start will need to snowball into a major effort finding new revenue.

The two major Utah newspapers ran headlines that could be misinterpreted. The Salt Lake Tribune (March 15, 2013) proclaimed “Utah schools get funding boost.” The Deseret News (March 14, 2013) announced, “Legislature meets education funding priorities.” Both statements are true, but readers should be careful of reading too much into the statements. Governor Herbert’s comment in the same Tribune article was the most optimistic the facts allow. He said, “We’re not to the promised land yet, but we’re on the right road….”

The bottom line: the modest funding increase of this year’s Legislative session will not begin to remove Utah from the bottom of the heap. We are so far behind any other state in per pupil expenditures it will take much more than a 2 percent increase in the WPU to make a significant dent in the sad truth.

(Remember the per pupil expenditure figures I shared with you in a previous blog: The national average for that year was $10,591. The top State was New York at $17,746. Utah trailed in position #51 at $6,612, Our neighbor state Idaho was next to bottom, but even they were well above Utah with $7,118.)

The Tribune editorial board (“Slippery slope: Nothing to stop slide of education,” March 16, 2013) summarized clearly: “Don’t be fooled by the enthusiasm. The Legislature did little more than maintain the status quo for public education.”

To solve Utah’s education funding problem, that start will need to snowball into a major effort finding new revenue.

During recent years, most politicians (especially those in the dominant party) have chanted the phrase, “No new taxes.” In fact, a review of the past decade points to decisions which have reduced available income for education. Educators and some Democrats have argued for increased revenue. (For example, see HB55 sponsored by Rep. Joel Briscoe this year.) But the outcome has ended up starving education. Now, however, keen observers on both sides of the aisle are beginning to speak a new language.

Now is the time to significantly increase revenue for education. Our children deserve it! The future demands it!

Education First (an organization including mostly Republicans and with Nolan Karras, former Republican Speaker of the House, as a co-chair) is advocating for greater investment in education. They are closely allied with a partner organization Prosperity 20/20 which has identified eight “revenue options” to support that greater investment, things like severance tax adjustments, fuel taxes, and quarterly income tax payments. (For more information, see their website: http://www.prosperity2020.com/.)

Major newspapers are taking up the call.

  • Columnist Richard Davis (Deseret News, March 20, 2013) put it frankly to political leaders: “If public education is such a priority, go get the revenue to fund it adequately. Stop claiming you love public education while financially starving it.”
  • The Salt Lake Tribune editorial (“Slippery Slope,” March 16, 2013) says, “Utah’s schoolchildren are being shortchanged….” The article goes on to identify potential sources of increased revenue.

Utah State Sen. Aaron Osmond (Republican) of West Jordan speaking to a Utah Foundation gathering (Salt Lake Tribune, “It’s time to raise taxes….,” March 29, 2013) said he personally was prepared to find new revenues. He said, “This is one legislator who believes the time has come for us to find a new method to generate new money for public education.”

In summary, I appreciate the beginning effort made by the Utah Legislature this year, but like many others, I believe we are at a critical juncture. Now is the time to significantly increase revenue for education. Our children deserve it! The future demands it!

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