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Editorial: Utah education funds barely keep up with the need

Status quo maintained — again

First Published Mar 14 2014 06:05 pm • Last Updated Mar 14 2014 06:05 pm

While Utah’s colleges and universities had many of their budget wishes granted by the state Legislature, public education — kindergarten through 12th grade — will continue shortchanged, as it has for years, with little to no additional funding.

In the legislative session just ended, a huge amount of money — accounting for nearly half the state budget — was allocated to public education. But, although lawmakers like to boast about their commitment to schools, additional money will, again, merely fund basic education for more than 10,000 additional students expected next year and mandated expenditures such as employee health and retirement funds.

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The reality is that Utah’s birth rate — highest in the nation — and influx of new residents with children mean that nothing much will change for education in Utah until legislators admit the need for additional sources of revenue.

Utah’s place at the bottom among the states for per-pupil spending will remain ours alone, and the growing gap between Utah and the state in the next-lowest spot will continue to grow. House Speaker Becky Lockhart, after 16 years in office, should have understood that fact, but instead attempted to find a whopping $200 million to $300 million somewhere in the budget for her pet school technology initiative.

The money simply isn’t there, as she discovered when the Senate rightly refused to move funds from other essential departments to the education fund as she demanded. Senate leadership said, correctly, that a tax increase would be needed to come up with that much.

And increased revenue is exactly what is needed, not necessarily to put digital devices in every student’s hands but to provide better education for all children, to boost readiness of preschoolers, help the 25 percent who don’t graduate from high school and better prepare all students for college and careers.

But, while the Legislature committed only to stand by the status quo for public ed, it allocated an additional $50 million to help higher education institutions, particularly Utah’s open-access colleges and universities, make degrees and certificates more affordable.

Salt Lake Community College and Utah Valley University are the top beneficiaries of the upcoming fiscal-year budget. Although tuition at Utah’s large research universities is near the national average, state support of those schools is not. This move will help make those schools more competitive.

Weber State University, Utah State and Snow College will receive capital funding for much-needed new buildings.

Overall, education fared better this year than during the Great Recession but not as well as it should.

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