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Alliance for a Better Utah preparing to sue state over school funding

First Published      Last Updated Feb 17 2016 05:34 pm

Education » Similar suits across the country have had mixed results in trying to force spending.

If Utah lawmakers won't increase school funding on their own, maybe the courts will make them.

That's the strategy behind an upcoming lawsuit by the Alliance for a Better Utah, which argues that state leaders have failed in their constitutional duty to adequately fund the public education system.

"If they're going to keep making excuses, then we're going to take action," said Chase Thomas, associate director of policy and advocacy for the progressive-leaning group.

Utah is one of four states that have not faced litigation on the issue of school funding.

Those lawsuits have yielded mixed results, but the Alliance for a Better Utah sees victories in South Carolina, Washington and Kansas as setting optimistic precedents.

In those three cases, the states' supreme courts ruled that schools were underfunded and directed lawmakers to take action to adequately support education.

Utah spends the least per student of any state in the nation, a ranking typically attributed to larger-than-average families.

The state also ranks in the bottom half nationally for its funding effort, measured by the percentage of personal income that goes to support public education.

Matt Lyon, a consultant with the Alliance for a Better Utah, said changes to the state's tax code have decreased the burden on taxpayers while also eroding funding for schools.

"The state has made deliberate attempts through policy decisions to remove funding that would otherwise have gone to education," Lyon said.

The Utah Constitution directs the Legislature to "provide for the establishment and maintenance of the state's education systems."

Lyon said the lawsuit will question the definition of "maintenance," arguing that state leaders have done little to offer educational opportunities for students.

Fewer than half of Utah students are reaching grade-level benchmarks in math, science and English, according to the most recent year-end-test data.

And about one-fourth of graduating seniors are "college ready" based on benchmarks set for the ACT test, which is taken by all Utah high school students.

Those scores are even worse for Utah's minority students, who lag behind their white peers by one of the widest margins in the United States, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

"If you look at educational results in Utah," Lyon said, "it's clear that we're not meeting those minimum standards."

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said the state would be in a strong position to defend itself against a lawsuit.

Last year, lawmakers approved a $75 million property tax increase that primarily benefits school districts with low property values.

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