Underfunded schools reach their breaking point

Published October 1, 2009 10:46 pm
UEA » Population, eroding tax base and cutbacks spell trouble.
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If Utahns want to improve public schools, they should start by funding them.

That's hardly a novel message coming from the teachers' union, but data unveiled Thursday at the annual Utah Education Association convention suggest public schools have reached a breaking point.

As one teacher put it: "The old model of 'stack 'em deep, educate 'em cheap' no longer works."

That Utah is dead last in per-pupil spending is not news, but it could surprise some that the next closest state, Idaho, outspent the Beehive State by $1,000 per student.

"We're losing ground fast, and at a time when we can least afford to," said union president Kim Campbell.

Today, Utah spends more on schools than it did 10 years ago, because of growth in the student population. Also, changes in state tax law during the past decade -- a flat tax and tax incentives to corporations -- have translated to an annual loss of $1 billion for public schools, Campbell said.

That, coupled with legislative budget cuts and a booming population, spells trouble, Campbell said.

Funding education won't get easier anytime soon, said University of Utah economist Pamela Perlich who told teachers, "You're in a growth industry."

Heavy job losses in manufacturing states like Ohio and Michigan are driving Americans West, said Perlich. Also, Utah continues to become younger and more diverse, a trend driven largely by an influx of foreign immigrants.

Meanwhile, the nation's economy is changing with tomorrow's jobs requiring higher levels of education, Perlich said.

Also, high school graduation and college attendance rates are falling, partly because of the growing achievement gap among minorities who will one day become a majority.

For every 100 Latino students, only 40 graduate from high school compared with an 84 percent graduation rate among whites, said Perlich. "You can't build an information-based economy on these graduation rates."

Furthermore, a dead economy means a shrinking tax base and even less money for schools, she said. "Today's youth are the key to the future, and my happy retirement."

In the past, Utah's changing demographics have failed to sway conservative lawmakers who cite the state's stellar graduation rates and performance on college entrance exams as proof education can be delivered on the cheap.

However, that view is changing.

"Public education is at a crossroads," Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said Thursday. "Do I think schools need more money? Absolutely."

Stephenson doubts Utah schools will emerge unscathed from the upcoming legislative session.

Although Stephenson's not about to advocate increased taxes, he contends there's plenty of fat in state government that can be trimmed and fed to schools.

Whether schools are given leeway to spend the money as they see fit is another matter.

"Just because you spend more money on schools doesn't mean it goes into the classroom," Stephenson said.

Campbell disagrees and points to data showing that as public school funding falls, class sizes expand. Conversely, as funding grows, class size shrinks.

"There are those who say money doesn't matter in education, but people care about class size," said Campbell, citing a recent Dan Jones poll of 600 Utahns showing 71 percent say the state's class sizes are too large.

Another 66 percent say schools are underfunded, the poll shows. When asked who should pay, Utahns point to business, favoring a corporate income tax increase.

kstewart@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">kstewart@sltrib.com

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