Beagley: Toward public education funding equity

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"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…"

The second assertion of the Declaration of Independence begins with some of the most poignant words humankind has every strung together. They comprise a significant realization that each of us has inherent value and undeniable importance. It was a simple extrapolation of this notion that led the authors of the Utah Constitution to extend this principle to our children in Article X:

"The Legislature shall provide for the establishment and maintenance of a uniform system of public schools…"

It is hard to imagine an enterprise where the concepts of equal and uniform would be more important than in the funding of our system of public education.

Undoubtedly the system was set up in a way that included these imperatives. As our state has grown and matured, though, the system has strayed significantly from uniformity and would be unrecognizable to our founders. Industries have come and gone, families have moved around and the funding system has fallen into confusion and inequity. Importantly, the disparity extends to both sides of the funding equation.

A significant portion of the revenue available to public schools comes from property taxes. We have schools districts whose average property valuation per student is 10 times that of other school districts. That's right, the property valuation per student in this state ranges over an entire order of magnitude.

As you might expect, tax rates are low in areas where property values are high and tax rates are high in areas where property values are low. In other words, families who live in areas with low property values must sacrifice a higher percentage of their wealth to pay for education.

The inequity also holds for the side of the equation that describes the money spent per student. Even though the Weighted Pupil Unit equalizes a portion of the funding, tremendous imbalance still arises. Districts with high property valuations can afford to spend thousands of dollars more per student than districts with low valuations.

Lest you think that this is only about money, I submit that these disparities have very real academic and economic consequences. Over the years we have set up a system of funding wherein the students of low socioeconomic status (one of the major risk factors for academic performance) live in areas with the lowest property values, the highest property tax rates and the lowest per pupil spending. This configuration stabilizes the achievement gaps in Utah, paralyzes entire communities and inhibits economic growth for the whole state.

Now may be the perfect time to fix this problem. As we enter a period of economic growth, slow though it may be, we can start the process of bringing both sides of the public education funding equation closer to equivalence. By doing so in a period of growth and over time we can allow the system to float upward to a common funding point and minimize the negative impact on districts with high property valuations.

Thus, we have a remarkable opportunity to return ourselves to the guiding principles that founded our nation and our state. Equality and uniformity in public education taxes and funding are worthy and achievable goals.

Tim Beagley is a former member of the Utah State Board of Education and a current member of the Utah State Charter School Board.