The percentage of Utah high school students who earn diplomas has been steadily rising over the past five years, from below 70 percent in 2008 to 81 percent this year. By any standard, that increase is to be celebrated.
However, optimism has to be tempered by the undiminished gap between the success of Utah’s white students and that of Latinos, blacks and American Indians.
While the graduation rate for Latinos — Utah’s largest minority group — rose 5 percent to 68 percent this year, the alarming difference between percentages of Latino and white students who graduate remained 17 percentage points. That difference is unacceptable.
The graduation rates for black and American Indian students lag similarly far behind, although all groups saw improvement.
The reasons for the achievement gap are varied, and finding solutions will not be easy. But, for the sake of these students, and for the economic well-being of the state, Utah leaders must make educational parity a priority.
We agree with State Superintendent Martell Menlove when he says the state will need to make a bigger investment in education if there is any hope of raising the graduation rates of minority students. Meeting Gov. Gary Herbert’s goal of having 66 percent of all Utahns holding college degrees or certificates by 2020 will not come cheaply, as the governor hopes.
The state budget is stretched thin, but some changes proposed by the business community in its Prosperity 2020 campaign, in conjunction with the governor’s “66 by 2020” goal, would produce additional revenue for education.
The proposals include: modernize Utah’s severance tax system, raise the fuel tax to help pay for roads and infrastructure rather than diverting education funds, tap mineral lease revenues, adjust income-tax credits, eliminate outdated or misguided sales tax exemptions.
The Legislature can no longer avoid increasing revenue for education from some or all of these sources, plus others discussed over the past decade. The state’s firm position in last place among the states in per-pupil spending is no longer a source of pride: We are the state that does more with less.
The reality is that Utah is doing less than many other states in public education — only 14 states rank below Utah’s graduation rate — and results of the lack of commitment will become more obvious as unemployed and underemployed residents tap social services, and economic development is slowed by a poor-quality workforce.