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Planning was the buzzword at a state education committee meeting Wednesday.
With a projected student population of 1 million looming 35 years from now, lawmakers were warned they had better start thinking about how to handle all of those kids.
Former House Speaker Nolan Karras said Utah has failed to follow the example of business. A successful organization, said Karras, plans for the next five years and forecasts the next decade.
But in Utah public education, he said, the state is lucky to have a two-year forecast.
"It's a joke, in my mind," said Karras, co-chairman of the advocacy group Education First. "There's nobody that looks beyond the current [legislative] session."
Karras' comments follow a recent report from the Utah Foundation, which predicted that roughly 1 million students will be enrolled in the state's public schools by 2050 up from 622,000 last fall.
And enrollment at the state's public colleges and universities is projected to swell by an additional 30,000 students in the next six years the equivalent of another University of Utah, according to the Utah System of Higher Education.
Most of that growth will be concentrated along the Wasatch Front and in Washington County, according to Allyson Goldstein, a policy analyst with the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel.
Beyond population growth, Utah is becoming increasingly diverse. By 2040, Goldstein said, 30 percent of Utahns and 54 percent of Salt Lake City residents will be racial minorities.
"We're growing," Goldstein said, "and we're growing fast."
Committee members agreed Utah needs long-term plans to address school capacity and the performance gaps that linger between white and minority students.
State Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, wondered if the state should take a more active role in buying land and building new schools to help mitigate overcrowding.
"Purchasing [land] before the growth occurs around it," Eliason said, "I think, would be a very wise move and a great investment."
And State Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, asked why the state hasn't committed to future funding levels if enrollment growth can be predicted.
Utah spends the least per student for public education, and Dabakis said that part of long-term planning should include the willingness to raise revenues to meet funding goals.
"We need to build a 10-year chart," he said, "and, come hell or high water, this is what we're going to be spending."
But state Superintendent Brad Smith said one challenge is determining specific responsibilities among public education officials. Unlike more hierarchical public agencies, he said, public education includes elected and appointed officials at the district and state levels, and is overseen by the Legislature and the state school board.
"Public education in Utah is deliberately designed to be an extraordinarily complex system," he said, "with lots of players who do not have formal control over one another."
Smith said it would be "a thing of beauty" to know how much funding schools would receive from the state in five and 10 years, as Dabakis suggested. But education managers, he said, should adapt and rethink the way schools are funded to emphasize success rather than the time students spend in their seats.
"What levers can we pull on most effectively to deliver results?" he asked. "We do not have, always, a direct route to achieving the results we seek."
Smith said the Utah State Office of Education is working on a 10-year plan for schools, which he anticipates will be completed near the end of the summer and presented to the state school board and the Governor's Education Excellence Commission.
Representatives from higher education, Utah's business community and the governor's office also suggested they will collaborate on a series of long-term education plans in the coming months.
Murray Republican Rep. Bruce Cutler noted that without ongoing work, this year's five-year plan becomes next year's four-year plan. If lawmakers are serious about the need for a long-term strategy, he said, constant updating by policymakers will be required.
"We've got to plan on planning," he said. "Plan on this being a rolling plan for five years."