Tribune Editorial: When your school spending is in last place, don’t make it worse

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Students raise their hands in full classroom of 32 students in a Spanish class at South Jordan Middle School Monday Feb. 1. Lawmakers will consider a proposal to raise taxes to fund schools, which could pay for technology, teacher salaries and relieve pressure on over crowding.

“The first rule of holes: When you’re in one, stop digging.”

Molly Ivins

Thanks to the indefatigable numbers-crunchers at the U.S. Census Bureau, Utah has been reminded — again — that our state’s per-pupil investment in education comes in at the bottom of the nation — still.

In fact, we are so far behind every other state that the only way we might move up in this race is if there were to be a big crash among the cars ahead of us. Which is not going to happen.

It may be that the best we can hope for is to close the gap a bit. Or, as legislative leaders seem compelled to engage in a reboot of the state’s tax system, just make sure it doesn’t get worse.

Gov. Gary Herbert initially tried to poo-poo the latest report by saying he wasn’t buying it. He attempted a little misdirection, pointing to the not inconsiderable amount of money school districts have sunk into construction and bonding. That would, indeed, boost the amount of spending per student from the Census Bureau’s $7,179 per student to a more robust-sounding $10,700 a head.

The problem with that is that all the figures from the other states also don’t count building and bonding. So if we still wanted to do an apples-to-apples comparison, we’d have to add in those costs in the other states’ spending as well. Which would almost certainly slide Utah right back down to the bottom of the heap.

Herbert has long made it clear that he thinks Utah needs to do better by its public school students and teachers. His budgets always propose putting every spare nickel into public education. But even when the Legislature goes along — which it doesn’t always — all those spare nickels can manage is to keep up with the unending growth in student population and, barely, inflation.

Meanwhile, the state has cut income tax rates and otherwise fiddled with the revenue sources for education so that the effort we make to fund schools — measured as dollars spent per $1,000 of personal income — has actually plummeted from seventh in the nation to 37th. (Hat tip: Utah Foundation.)

What that means is that, as student populations skyrocket, as more and more of those students come from low-income, two-working-parent, non-English-speaking, just-moved-into-the-district families, Utah’s determination to pay for the next generation’s education has gone seriously wobbly.

We love our public schools in Utah. We just don’t want to pay for them. Or we keep hoping that some silver bullet — charter schools, vouchers, online testing — will ride to our rescue. Will make it possible to do a lot more with a bunch less.

It’s not going to work.

At the very least, those pondering a new mix of sales taxes, property taxes and income tax should be very careful to avoid doing anything that would further damage the state’s support for public education. Removing the existing constitutional provision that dedicates all income tax revenue to K-12 and higher education, as some have proposed, would be a step in the wrong direction.

And, in a place that is growing in population as quickly as urban Utah is, we should take a skeptical look at those policies that use tax breaks as business incentives, when we have little need to bribe businesses to stay or move here. And we should also consider impact fees from residential projects that are the source of each school district’s rapid growth.

Money is to public education as oxygen is to life. Having it does not guarantee success. Not having it guarantees failure.