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Editorial: Education funding needs governor's leadership

Published December 8, 2013 2:03 pm

Herbert's school funding inadequate
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Gov. Gary Herbert and his budget-building staff have sliced the revenue pie appropriately, for the most part, in the chief executive's budget proposal for 2015.

The weakness in Herbert's recommendations isn't in how he would allocate existing revenue — the largest portions of the pie are pretty much already promised — but in how much revenue there is to allocate.

Following a strict no-new-tax-is-a-good-tax ideology, Herbert has tied his own hands when it comes to improving the academic success of Utah's schoolchildren, which the governor says is his top priority. Herbert says he can only budget the revenue figures he's agreed to with the Legislature, but that says he won't provide the leadership needed to push for more.

The quality of public education in Utah is sliding downward, and it's time for a serious discussion about how to boost revenue and not simply provide the mere basics for a population of children that grows larger every year. Too many Utah kids don't read well, let alone understand higher mathematics and science concepts. Too few earn high school diplomas; too many of those who do graduate are unprepared for college.

Herbert's budget fully funds basic education for the 10,300 additional students expected in Utah schools in the coming fiscal year. That might fulfill the minimum requirement to provide an education for the state's children, but it won't make up ground lost during the worst years of the recession. Utah schools continued to welcome thousands of additional students with no new money. Herbert has said that loss will never be made up.

Beyond funding the new growth, the governor also would use revenue from the improving economy to increase by 2.5 percent the weighted pupil unit, which pays for teacher salaries and benefits and other basics. That means a small salary increase for employees and a boost of about $100 per pupil. While the governor's intentions are good, his failure to propose new sources of revenue for education is still a failure.

The automatic deposit of $120 million education fund "surplus" into the education "rainy day fund" at the end of fiscal year 2013 seems irresponsible, considering the needs of Utah schoolchildren. And it is unreasonable to totally reject any proposal to increase severance taxes — Utah's are some of the lowest among energy-rich states — or to refuse to consider changes to the income tax law that favors large families.

Herbert continues to support a goal of having 66 percent of all Utahns with post-high school degrees or certificates by 2020, but there is no corresponding support for early-childhood education, a proven method of increasing academic success, especially among kids who are at risk.

The governor's budget contains just $7.5 million to expand all-day kindergarten to a few more children from low-income families and nothing for quality state-sponsored preschool.

Focusing on the back end of the education pipeline while ignoring the more important foundation won't produce the results the governor says he wants.