Ten years from now, Utah could shed its last-in-the-nation ranking for per-pupil funding under bills being proposed by one state lawmaker.
Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City, plans to run several bills this session that would gradually increase per-pupil funding by $750 over 10 years, which he said would move Utah ahead of Idaho, now ranked second to last in the country for per-pupil funding. Under the proposals, Utah schools would eventually get about $450 million more a year than they currently receive, he said.
"We cannot continue to maintain the quality public schools we have unless we're willing to maintain and increase our financial commitment," McAdams said, citing a recent Education Week report that ranked Utah 42nd in the nation for education.
McAdams' proposals were among more than a dozen unveiled Friday by Utah Democrats, all aimed at improving education. One bill would reduce class sizes in grades K-3; another aims to create a mentoring program for teachers; and another would give teachers an additional day each year to prepare for school time that's been cut in recent years.
But McAdams' proposals are among the more dramatic ideas. He said his bills would bring education funding up to near where it would have been if the flat tax and a 1996 constitutional amendment allowing higher education to share income tax revenue with public education had not been put in place.
He wants to change the law to make current per-pupil funding, plus the additional $750, the new floor for education funding. That would be in addition to funding annual enrollment growth.
McAdams proposes to increase education funding by $40 million to $50 million a year over the 10 years through several means, including freezing property tax rates, so as property values rise so will revenue for education. He would also like to freeze rates for certain income tax deductions, mainly those families get for dependents. That means families' deductions for dependents would not rise as their incomes do, also leaving more money for education, he said.
Also, until the state is able to reach the new minimum funding level through those two means, he'd like to direct 30 percent of sales tax revenue growth each year to education.
"It's a small change today that would amount to a huge impact to public education over the long term," McAdams said.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, said Friday he hadn't yet seen the proposals but is wary of imposing a floor on education funding in these economic times.
"We would love to put more money in there as we go but, you know, we just went through one of worst downturns in our economy we've ever seen, so why would you want to put [in a floor] that ties you into a tax increase at the worst time?" Jenkins said. "Wouldn't you rather lower the floor a bit and try to keep everyone employed rather than have to lay people off or raise taxes?"
Jenkins said lawmakers already plan to put more money into education funding this year to pay for enrollment growth and teacher raises, as the governor has suggested.
Sen. Pat Jones, a Holladay Democrat and assistant minority whip, said McAdams and other Democrats have worked diligently on ways to find new revenue for education. She said it's not enough to continue to suggest that the way to grow education funding is by growing the economy.
"We really do need to look at ongoing new money that will be funneled into the classroom to help our teachers deliver the best education product that we can possibly deliver," Jones said.
Other proposals in the Democrats' Best Schools Initiative include a bill Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, is working on that would give school districts money to create Peer Assistance and Review programs. Under that program, expert teachers would be released from teaching to conduct evaluations and mentor new and underperforming teachers and then make recommendations to panels of educators about their employment, she said. Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, is also working on a bill to allow struggling schools to hire additional teachers' aides, known as paraprofessionals.
And Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Salt Lake City, is working on HB65, which would create a pilot program in which graduate students studying high school counseling would be given training on college admissions and scholarships and then placed in high schools to help students.
McAdams also is running a bill, SB117, that would require the legislative fiscal analyst to publish reports during each legislative session listing bills that would reduce revenues deposited into the Education Fund to alert the public to bills that might hurt education funding.
P Read more about the Democrats' proposals and see a summary of their bills • utahhousedemocrats.org