Decline in Utah school funding effort 'unprecedented'
Census • Share of income for schools falls from 8th to 26th.
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A new report is calling the decline in Utah's education funding effort over the past 16 years "unprecedented."

The Utah Foundation report, released Tuesday, says Utah's funding effort has fallen significantly since 1995, placing it 26th in the nation for the amount of tax revenue public education received for every $1,000 in personal income in 2009. The report calls the decline "unprecedented, especially given the state's history of high proportions of personal income dedicated to public education."

"It's a big deal because we're a people that has chosen to value family and to have a lot of kids, and when we survey Utah voters about the issues, they really care about education," said Steve Kroes, president of the Utah Foundation. "It's always in the top one or two issues on their minds, and funding is one of the aspects of education that they are most concerned about, and yet, through the political process, we're not seeing that funding receive the priority that voters seem to want."

Over the years, the foundation has published a number of reports explaining what it has called "Utah's education paradox" — the fact that while Utah has long had the lowest per-pupil spending the country, it also spent a high proportion of personal income on schools through taxes. Kroes said people often still use that education paradox notion as an excuse for why the state doesn't put more money into education, but "the excuse doesn't hold water any more."

The report says Utah has the lowest per-pupil spending in the nation partly because of the state's high proportion of children, but it also notes the decline in the education funding effort.

In 2009, Utah's education funding effort was nearly $48 per $1,000 in personal income, meaning about 4.8 percent of all income earned in the state went toward public education in the form of taxes, the report says, citing data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That was down from $56.44 in 1992, when Utah ranked eighth in the nation for its education funding effort.

The report noted that Utah's funding effort rebounded somewhat in 2008 when a budget surplus was invested in education, but that the recession has reduced that effort.

"People always say to me, 'Well, I know we don't spend as much, but we try harder,' " said Kim Burningham, a member of the Utah Board of Education. "Well, that isn't true. We don't." Burningham has written two blog entries in recent weeks, one of which called education funding in Utah "appalling."

The report attributes the decline in education funding effort to a number of things, including changes in how much of their incomes Utahns have spent, in general, on state and local government. It says the decline in education funding effort in the late 1990s coincided with a moderate decrease in Utah's overall tax burden. It also attributes the decline to a shift in spending from education to other areas, including health and human services, transportation, and law and order. That shift happened after voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1996 that allowed higher education to also be funded out of income tax revenue, freeing up more sales tax revenue for other programs, Kroes said.

Kroes said it's clear policymakers, over the past two decades, have placed a higher priority on other programs or on reducing taxes than on education funding.

Senate budget Chairman Lyle Hillyard, however, said Tuesday he disagrees with that assessment. He said the best way to raise more money for the state is by cutting tax rates to encourage economic growth.

"I firmly believe the best way you increase income tax [revenue] is by cutting the rate so that people can invest and expand," said Hillyard, R-Logan. "I think on the other hand, if we raised taxes, we'd probably have less money because people react to that."

According to the report, Utah would have had to have spent an additional $392 million — 11 percent more — on education funding just to move up one spot from its ranking of last in the nation for per-pupil spending in 2009. To have risen to the national average for per-pupil spending in 2009, the state would have had to spend a whopping $2.2 billion more.

"I just don't think there's enough taxes we could raise that would satisfy some of the groups as to what they think a good effort would be, if we continue to do things as we've done for a long time," Hillyard said, referring to the way students are educated.

And according to the Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst, Utah has worked to spend an increasing share of state dollars on education in recent years. In fiscal year 2008, 46 percent of state dollars were spent on education, and lawmakers passed a budget last session allocating 51 percent of state dollars to education.

But Burningham said it's troubling to him that the state spends as much as it does on the corrections system. And he said he's troubled that the Legislature reversed the governor's veto of a bill that would have earmarked more money for road projects. Herbert rejected the bill, saying it prioritized transportation over things like education, but lawmakers said transportation is a priority and they still had flexibility to take money out of the road funds if the state budget is pinched.

Burningham said Utah's declining education funding effort means larger class sizes and fewer support services for students, which can include things like school counselors and programs for struggling and high-achieving students.

"There's significant harm done to our kids who are given less chances because of that," Burningham said.

The foundation released a report in September that showed Utah students most often rank last on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests in math, reading and science when compared with states with similar ethnic makeups, parental education levels and poverty rates.

Kroes said he doesn't have any proof that achievement and funding are connected, but that it's possible. He said Utah is also becoming more diverse, and children of immigrants sometimes come from homes where their parents aren't highly educated, which can also affect overall state achievement. In the 2009-10 school year, minority students made up nearly 22 percent of all Utah public school students.

"It's not all about the money and certainly there's much that Utah schools can do better … but it is a concern that most of these trends are happening at the same time because if we're going to try to address some of these challenges, like our increasing diversity, we're probably going to need some money to do things differently," Kroes said.

Kroes said if Utah's education funding effort continues to decline as it has, Utah will ultimately end up ranking well below average when compared to other states.