A bill that would increase revenue for education by changing the way property taxes and income-tax exemptions are figured is a step forward, but it doesn't go far enough to help Utah dig out of the funding pit it has dug for itself.
Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, is sponsoring HB55, which would freeze one property tax rate, called the basic levy. The current law requires the levy to decrease as property values rise, so that the state doesn't see a windfall.
The bill would also freeze personal state income-tax exemptions at a specific dollar amount instead of tying them to the federal income-tax exemption allowance. Utah taxpayers now can claim exemptions for each person in a family, up to 75 percent of the federal income tax exemption. Briscoe's bill would set a fixed amount of $2,850 per person.
These changes could bring an additional $10 million to $15 million for public education in Utah, not a huge amount compared with what is needed. Nevertheless, the increase could help Utah schools provide broader access to early-childhood education or remedial assistance for older children to help more of them graduate from high school.
Nearly a quarter of Utah students do not graduate with a diploma. Far too many young children enter first grade without the basic skills to help them learn to read, write and do math. Students who do not learn to read well by the third grade often fall hopelessly behind and eventually drop out. Among Latinos, Utah's largest minority ethnic group, the dropout rate is higher than 50 percent.
The Legislature has ignored growing problems in Utah schools far too long. Funding per pupil has been stagnant, and lowest in the nation by far, for years. During the recession, Utah did not even provide the money to educate the 10,000 or so children who were added to rolls each year. Simply funding growth is not moving ahead, not improving the dire situation for Utah's children.
Children are our greatest resource. Failing to educate them adequately, besides fomenting human suffering, creates a drag on economic development.
Corporation officials would think twice about moving to the Beehive State, once they and their employees learn that public education is mediocre. And what does Utah's unimpressive graduation rate say about the quality of the workforce here?
Producing an undereducated population increases costs for social services, law enforcement and corrections.
Underfunding for education has reached a crisis stage. What will our legislators do about it?