Admitting the need
It was refreshing finally to hear a Republican state legislator put into words what so many outside the halls of the Capitol have been saying for years: Utah schools are underfunded, and our children's chances for success are dwindling because of it.
Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, was only stating the obvious when he told Utah leaders the other day that new revenue must be found for education if we are to arrest the slide of graduation rates and test scores. But his statement demonstrated courage in the face of the unwavering commitment among his colleagues to the Republican mantra of no new taxes, ever.
It should be apparent that no progress can be made toward keeping all children in school through the 12th grade or making sure graduates are ready for work or college, relying on current levels of funding.
The Legislature did little more than maintain the status quo for public education in the session just ended, even with what legislators exulted over as the "biggest infusion of new money for education in years." Most of the additional money will merely pay the current cost of educating the 13,500 new students expected to arrive next school year and provide a meager 2 percent boost in the basic per-pupil rate.
Even with the additional 2 percent, most of which will go to maintain basic personnel benefits, Utah's $2,899 expenditure per student will remain at the bottom among all states, far below the next lowest on the ladder. There was no money to make up for the recession years when tens of thousands of additional students were absorbed without more money.
The Legislature failed to fund more early-childhood education, including expanded all-day kindergarten and a preschool program for at-risk children, programs that would reduce the nearly 25 percent rate of Utah ninth-graders who do not graduate from high school.
The goal promoted by Gov. Gary Herbert and education advocates to have two-thirds of Utahns with college degrees or professional certificates by 2020 is a fantasy unless funding is substantially increased.
So the admission that more revenue is needed is a big step forward. Still, if Osmond and others, including pro-education business leaders, are able to gather support for the concept of new revenue an uphill battle at best they should be careful what revenue sources they support. Regressive taxes, such as a higher sales tax on food, are not the answer.
Instead of burdening low-income Utahns in that way, legislators should look at reducing the giveaways that sap the state's ability to fund education.
Oil and gas developers in Utah pay the lowest effective tax rate among all energy producers in the American West. Public education is well-funded in Wyoming, for example, which has more energy development than Utah but also taxes that development at a much higher rate. Utah coal mine owners pay no extraction fee.
That low-or-no-tax policy is self-defeating. Developers go where the resources are, not to where taxes are lowest. But Utah natural resources are finite. There should be a fee for extracting them and making billions in profits in the process. Raising taxes on fossil fuel industries could create a fund that would yield cash for education even after the resources are gone.
The other obvious solution that gets no traction among Utah Republican legislators who are members of the LDS Church, which encourages large families, is to cap income tax exemptions at four per household. Public education gets the bulk of its funding from the income tax, and it makes no logical sense to give huge tax breaks to families that make Utah classes the largest in the nation.
As Osmond says about his constituents, most would endorse education tax increases, as long as the money is used for instruction, not administration, and schools can demonstrate through reliable measures that the extra money is producing positive results. That's fair.
If conservative legislators continue to ignore the need to better support education, pro-school advocates like the Salt Lake Chamber should go directly to voters in a ballot initiative to get the job done.