Gov. Gary Herbert and legislative leaders were effusive over funding granted by the Legislature for public education in the legislative session just ended. It's the biggest infusion of new money for schools in years, they said, and they are right. But don't be fooled by the enthusiasm.
The Legislature did little more than maintain the status quo for public education. Or, it might be more accurate to say it rebounded backward to pre-recession funding. There were no new budget cuts like those experienced for several years, but most of the additional money allocated for public education will merely fund the 13,500 new students expected to arrive next school year and a meager 2 percent boost in the basic per-pupil rate.
Even with the additional 2 percent, Utah's $2,899 expenditure per student will remain at the bottom among all states, far below the next lowest on the ladder. Most of the increase will go to employees' Social Security and retirement, and a meager 1 percent pay boost for teachers. There was no money to make up for the years when tens of thousands of additional students were absorbed without new money in the public-education system.
Most unfortunate was the failure to fund more early-childhood education, including expanded all-day kindergarten and a preschool program for at-risk children. Instead, money went to several technology initiatives that will mostly help middle-class, white children who are not at risk of becoming part of the nearly 25 percent of Utah ninth-graders who do not even graduate from high school.
Teacher-training days were not restored after being eliminated during the recession.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, defended the session's treatment of public education. "We're not sitting on a pile of money that we won't allocate to education." He's right, but that's the heart of the problem. The Legislature refuses to even consider new revenue or revisions in the income tax system that would provide that "pile of money" that public schools desperately need.
Utah has the largest families in the nation, and the more children a family produces, the less state income tax it pays. That is simply nonsense.
The public understands that Utah's schoolchildren are being shortchanged, but legislators don't get it. Conservative legislators stick to their no-new-taxes ideology, even when polls show Utahns would pay higher taxes if they knew the money would go to their neighborhood schools. Utah oil and gas developers pay the lowest effective tax rate among Western energy producers. Coal mines pay no extraction fee. Raising taxes on extractive industries could create a fund for long-term education funding.
There were bright spots this session: money so all students can take the ACT college-admissions test for free, funding for an elementary arts program and for anti-bullying and suicide prevention. But those won't stop the slide of public education into greater depths of mediocrity.