Funding public education systems is not inexpensive. More so, supporting high-quality schools in a state with a young, increasingly diverse and growing population means adequate resources are more critical today than ever before. While Utah has held education funding steady in recent years, our investment is not strong enough for every child to succeed.
Last week, Gov. Gary Herbert released his budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year. Education is “my top budget priority. It always has been since I’ve been governor, and it will continue to be,” he said.
I am often asked why, if education is the state’s top priority each year, does Utah still rank last in the nation in per-student spending and still endure teacher shortages, swelling class sizes, and middling outcomes?
This gets to the heart of the disconnect between budget officials and education leaders: while the total amount of new dollars each year seems meaningful, the reality is it takes more each year to maintain existing funding levels. Let me explain, using the governor’s budget recommendation.
Included in the proposal is $208 million in new on-going funds for K-12 schools, an amount that appears significant. But how does that impact students and teachers?
- $121 million for a 4 percent increase in the Weighted Pupil Unit (WPU). This provides local districts funding for maintenance and operation, such as, cost of living adjustments for personnel and to cover rising costs for utilities, supplies, transportation and health care. The majority of this 4 percent increase is required to maintain current staffing.
- $33 million for 7,681 new students entering Utah’s public education system. Utah’s healthy economy means more people are moving to Utah, and this, coupled with the state’s large family sizes, adds up to continual growth in the number of students in our schools. Without allocating funding for new students, resources would be taken from current students. This $33 million simply keeps funding level from year to year for new students in most settings.
Each year, it sounds like a remarkable total is being invested in teacher success and student achievement. Yet as shown above, nearly 75 percent is required to turn the lights on at schools, retain critical employees, keep compensation consistent and preserve the same level of spending for all students as the previous year. Utah schools are extremely efficient (second lowest administrative costs in the United States) and will continue to find ways to stretch taxpayer resources.
State leaders deserve credit for prioritizing education funding to the level they have in recent years. But this funding falls short in fully addressing the growing needs of Utah students and doesn’t allow for improvement in student achievement, which is critical to Utah’s quality of life and economic competitiveness. In order to reach the governor’s goal of becoming the best state for education, greater financial investment is absolutely necessary.
After years of study, the Governor’s Commission on Education Excellence has released a plan to dramatically improve outcomes for Utah students. Some of their research-based recommendations include expanded kindergarten programs for at-risk students, raising teacher salaries, professional development for educators, and additional counselors in elementary and high schools.
The total for all of the commission’s recommendations is more than $1 billion annually, not including increases for new students, costs of living and inflation.
Without investing in these strategies, Utah is merely treading water, or worse, slipping further behind. Utah’s economy has performed exceptionally well since the recession, yet state revenues fail to fund the drivers of student achievement. Continuing on this path means accepting high classroom sizes, marginal student achievement, unbelievable teacher turnover rates and yes, the lowest per-student funding in the nation.
This is why the Our Schools Now initiative is desperately needed for Utah schools. The initiative would provide the needed investment for gains in student achievement, while allowing lawmakers to continue covering maintenance, operation and enrollment obligations.
What makes Utah special? Without hesitation, most would say the quality of our people. So, doesn’t it make sense to invest in the youngest among us? Just because we choose to have more children per capita does not remove our obligation to provide each and every Utah student a high-quality education.
McKell Withers, Ed.D. retired in 2016 as superintendent of the Salt Lake City School District following a lifelong career in education in Utah. He now serves on the steering committee for Our Schools Now, a 2018 ballot initiative aiming to increase investment in Utah schools for greater student achievement.