When Utah legislators trumpet a “largest in history” funding boost for public education, as they did last year, parents, educators and taxpayers should be wary.
It happens whenever revenue is available to barely cover the cost of educating the additional children added to school enrollment every year and also to pay for mandated retirement and insurance benefits for employees. Except for three years during the recent recession, when not even enrollment growth was fully funded, it happens every year.
The additional revenue legislators funneled to education last year sounds like a lot of money — especially when politicians want credit for being champions of schools and kids — and it is. But those hundreds of millions don’t get spent on teacher training or higher pay for excellent teaching, for smaller classes or more help for struggling students, as Tribune reporters discovered. It simply maintained the status quo.
The simple truth — no matter what message comes from Capitol Hill — is that, unless legislators make some commonsense changes to tax and fee systems, there will be no more money in any significant amount for any of those things.
Utah’s birthrate — the highest in the nation — means the state has the youngest population, with fewer taxpaying adults to fund education for more children. But that demographic reality doesn’t mean we have to throw up our collective hands and declare defeat. Our children are too important for us to accept that Utah is doomed not only to remain dead last among all states in per-pupil funding but also to sink ever further below the state just above.
There are sources legislators could reasonably tap to increase money for education. And we’re not referring to the misguided concept of taking ownership of federal lands in the state, often disingenuously touted as a boon for schools.
Since the Utah Constitution was changed in 1996 to allow income-tax funds to be used for higher education as well as for public schools, the state has shifted general-fund allocations away from higher ed to such items as highways. A long-overdue fuel-tax increase could reduce the drain on public education going to transportation.
Broadening the sales tax to include all services, reforming the income tax to reduce personal exemptions and add a surcharge on the wealthiest Utahns, reducing exemptions to severance taxes on oil and gas and imposing a severance tax on coal are all changes worth consideration.
Virtually all legislators claim “public education” as their top priority when campaigning. We’d like to see them make good on that claim.