In polls over the years, including one released last week, Utahns say they support additional funding for Utah public schools, even indicating a willingness to pay higher taxes to salvage education.
For years, Utah's education quality has survived chronic underfunding, but ill-advised tax cuts before the Great Recession, added to devastating revenue shortfalls the past three years, have created a crisis that we no longer can ignore without long-term consequences.
Utahns know the importance of education to the economic well-being of the state and to the future of our youth. So, maybe it's time for legislators, who will open the 2011 general session Monday, to get serious about increasing not only spending, but also revenue for the schools.
A new poll conducted for the University of Utah Center for Public Policy & Administration and the Exoro Group indicates that 67 percent of respondents are "probably" or "definitely" "willing to pay more in taxes for increased salaries for Utah's public school teachers." And 69 percent said they would "probably" or "definitely" pay higher taxes to reduce class sizes.
Clearly, even while mortgage foreclosures are at an all-time high and unemployment is above 7 percent, Utahns want better schools and would back up their support with cash.
We are a bit more cautious for the time being. While so many Utah residents are struggling financially, the best we can do this year is follow Gov. Gary Herbert's recommendations to fully fund the 14,700 new students expected next fall, maintain an extended-day kindergarten program a proven method of boosting kids' academic success for another year, and to implement the Common Core Standards for math and language arts that 40 other states have adopted.
Instead, there are rumblings among legislators of yet more cuts to public education budgets.
Going forward, the Legislature has simply got to increase education funding substantially if Utah is to compete for high-tech companies, and if children are going to be prepared for the jobs they would bring.
For the past two years public education has absorbed budget cuts, and the enrollment growth about 12,000 new students each year went unfunded for the first time ever. The consequences of those reductions will be evident in coming years. Already, Utah student performance on standardized tests is dead last among states with similar demographics, college completion rates are falling, and at least a third of college freshmen need remedial courses in order to complete degree requirements.
Utah's high school graduation rate has not improved for eight years, and when using a standard method of counting, it has sunk compared to the national average. The achievement gap between white and minority children is embarrassingly wide.
We urge Utah lawmakers to avoid their perennial penchant for education-reform proposals that assume waste and inefficiency are to blame and ignore the oft-repeated but stark facts: Utah ranks dead last in per-pupil funding and has the largest class sizes in the nation. Teacher pay is near the lowest, and the gap in test scores, graduation rates and attendance between white and minority students is among the widest in the land.
For example, it's a waste of time to adopt a Florida model of grading public schools, as some legislators would like to do, unless Utah also follows that state's lead in amending the state constitution to cap class sizes and allocating the kind of funding Florida gives its schools.
Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, says let's save money by eliminating 12th grade. That misguided idea would dump thousands of students into the job market unprepared or into colleges needing even more remedial courses than they do now. Welfare rolls would likely grow as the undereducated became the unemployed.
Georgetown University's Center on Education estimates 66 percent of jobs in Utah will require at least some postsecondary education by 2018. So business leaders want to have two-thirds of Utah adults earn skilled-trade certificates or college degrees by 2020. Only 50 percent now have those credentials. They also want 90 percent of elementary-school students to be proficient in reading and math by 2020. But frankly, without a substantial increase in education funding, both goals are simply pie in the sky.
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, says he wants to rid schools of poor teachers.
And how does Stephenson think the Beehive State will replace poor teachers with excellent ones who must be willing to take on the largest class sizes in the country in return for pay that qualifies them for food stamps?
Let's get serious.
We don't agree with legislators who wring their hands and say there's little they can do to boost education funding, given the number of school-age children in the state. There are ways to increase revenue, and, yes, they involve the dreaded T-word.
There is one simple way to boost revenue: Eliminate the state subsidy for large families who, in truth, are causing much of the crisis. In Utah, the more children you have, the less you pay in income taxes, which fund schools. That's backward.
It's unfair that families with no children or only one or two pay more than those with the same income and many children. Polls show a majority of Utahns are willing to pay higher taxes to improve education. Since legislators refuse to consider eliminating exemptions beyond two per family, let's put that idea or a general tax increase on the ballot and let voters decide.