By Ron W. Smith
For The Salt Lake Tribune
Pity our poor governor and legislators. Year in, year out, they labor under self-imposed restraints that result in the same problem: So little money for the funding of K-12; so much need. By now you'd think they'd stumble upon a winning solution. They haven't. They obviously need our help a gentle nudge and some out-of-the-box thinking.
In fairness, it should be made clear that, unlike their counterparts in some neighboring states, our state-level elected officials haven't the luxury of revenues coming in from lotteries and/or legalized gambling. They also have the liability of a state income tax that some of those states don't.
Utah just might, their thinking goes, be unattractive to businesses that could locate here, provide needed jobs, and thus boost our economy if we try to tax our way to significant improvement in the funding of public education.
The result has been annual neither/nor paralysis. We can't do this, we can't do that, so we do nothing to actually solve the underfunding problem, preferring instead to scapegoat educators and the public schools, deny that K-12 teachers are undercompensated, or once again trotting out the outdated defensive strategy of getting by on a make-do basis.
The first thing, then, is overcoming neither/nor. With the state income tax, that means no more saying that we can neither reduce allowable exemptions nor increase ones in the top percentage rate, unless a better is already in place. And it certainly can no longer be neither earmarked taxes on, say, sweets, sporting events, or gasoline, nor an increase in the state's extractions taxes/royalties unless a better way is in place. And (at the risk of lightning and thunder) it can no longer be neither legalized gambling/lottery nor legalized and controlled recreational drugs unless a better way is already in place.
If all of the above remain unacceptable in the executive and legislative branches in 2013, I recommend statewide open discussion and debate of each, the requirement being that for each one argued against, a better way to match the potential revenue must be argued for. The desired outcome, of course, is an end to the chronic underfunding of K-12 in Utah, a family-friendly state where children are arguably the most important product.
There are additional ways of implementing a combination of things toward easing the extent of underfunding. Instead of, or in addition to, putting in place a dedicated and sufficient additional stream of revenue, some of the following have potential:
(1) Philanthropic underwriting or backing of schools and/or school districts (as in Newark, N.J.).
(2) Volunteerism in all facets of the education system from mentoring to grounds and maintenance.
(3) Broadened and systematized online opportunities.
(4) Cost-saving changes in the school year and school day.
(5) Efficiencies in the use of buildings.
(6) Promotion of and training for home schooling.
(7) An LDS version of Catholic parochial schools.
(8) Elimination of paid administrative levels.
There are also possible savings in other areas of government that could be used to better the funding of public education. One is the corrections system. Incarceration for drugs and immigration put the U.S. in first place internationally in per-capita incarcerations.
Is it time, here in Utah, to rethink these laws and, perhaps, save money better appropriated to K-12?
Utah is far behind states like Massachusetts (and even further behind many foreign countries like Finland and South Korea) in its overall support of public education, far behind in specifics like recruitment and retention of teachers, test results, and students who finish high school on time.
The state's teachers have clearly been underappreciated, undersupported, and overloaded. In an extraordinary, family-friendly state with unique demographic problems, we need much better. We need extraordinary solutions for our children's sake.
I've given my ideas. Care to join the crusade?
Ron W. Smith taught for many years in the English Department at Utah State University, four years as supervisor of graduate teaching assistants. Now retired, he lives in Providence with his wife, who spent more than 30 years in Logan's elementary schools.