Children at risk
There will be a lot of talk during the 2013 session of the Utah Legislature about public education. Gov. Gary Herbert has already laid the groundwork with his budget recommendation, which would channel about two-thirds of the state's expected revenue increase into the classroom, primarily as a small salary hike for employees and to pay for a projected perennial enrollment increase. But, as past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, we expect the Legislature to ignore the dangerous trends that threaten the most precious resource and best economic-development tool we have: our children all of them.
Utah is at a crossroads. Coming out the Great Recession more quickly than most states, Utah has a chance to make meaningful strides to improve education. But it will require a commitment of focus, a clear-eyed vision not clouded by dogged ideology, and money. And that will mean boosting revenue and funneling it to public schools.
If that doesn't happen, education outcomes are likely to go from mediocre to worse in Utah. Consider:
• For years Utah's system of counting potential graduates including failing to include ninth-graders led policy makers and residents to believe that the Beehive State had one of the highest graduation rates in the nation somewhere around 90 percent or better.
Now that Utah must use the same measurements as other states, we find Utah is actually in the bottom half of states with a 76 percent graduation rate. Herbert wants to know why, but he's already hedging the answer by saying flawed measurement criteria could be to blame, and pointing to the growing minority student population.
He is correct in assuming that many of those students who do not graduate are non-white. Utah has the fourth-lowest graduation rate for Latinos in the country at 57 percent. That's particularly bad news because Latinos make up about 15.5 percent of all Utah public school students, and the percentage is growing. By 2040 minorities will become the majority in America.
That reality is a reason for action, not for shrugging our shoulders and moving ahead to do more for the higher-achieving white students, a third of whom, by the way, are not ready for college-level work even when they do have a diploma.
Utah students' average reading test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test are improving, but Utah Latino students' average reading score was 24 points lower than white students' scores in 2011. Some 84 percent of white Utah students scored at the "basic" reading level, but just 58 percent of Latinos and 57 percent of American Indian/Pacific Islanders reached that mark.
• Utah's per-pupil spending is, by far, the lowest in the nation. The state is the fourth-fastest growing and has the largest family sizes in the country. And that translates into the largest class sizes. But there's more to it than that. The old excuse that, although the dollar amount spent is small, Utah's "funding effort" was among the highest in the U.S. , is no longer true.
The Utah Foundation reported in 2011 that in 2009, Utah's education funding effort was just under $48 per $1,000 of personal income, meaning that taxes paid for public education equaled about 4.8 percent of all income earned in the state. Utah's national ranking for this effort is 26th, or right about the national average.
• The Comprehensive Annual Financial Report released last January by the State Division of Finance shows that education expenditures in fiscal year 2008 were $2.96 billion, followed by $3.04 billion in 2009, $3.0 billion in 2010 and $3.06 billion in 2011. In real per-student dollars, public education probably lost at least 10 percent over that time period, while enrollment climbed by 10,000 or more nearly every year.
Higher education spending actually fell 11 percent from $858 million to $767 million between 2008 and 2011. And, since student growth at colleges and universities was much higher than K-12's, higher education probably lost 18 to 21 percent in real per-student dollars over the past three years, Doug Macdonald, former chief economist of the Utah Tax Commission wrote in a Tribune op-ed.
• Utah business leaders have organized to counter what they see ahead: Utahns who are not sufficiently schooled to support tomorrow's economy. They formed a PAC, Education First, to address what they have called lawmakers' unwillingness to support education, and Prosperity 2020, a group to work with government to improve it.
The PAC's founders said they were not targeting educators but a "legislative agenda that puts ideological interests above learning outcomes."
In other words, legislators give lip service to education, but dollars to transportation and other priorities.
While Herbert likes to point to Forbes magazine that ranks Utah No. 1 for business, Utah ranks 41st in the nation for education performance and policy, according to Education Week's annual "Quality Counts" report. His budget provides only tiny amounts for maintaining limited all-day kindergarten and for remedial help for kids options that have proven helpful.
Utah's children are at risk. It's time for the governor to lead on reforming public education spending; that leadership will not come from lawmakers. Revenue for education must be increased. Simply holding the status quo as Herbert does in his new budget is not enough.