This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Utah's Education Fund, once dedicated solely for public education, has a projected $488 million surplus for fiscal year 2017. This year, the Utah State Board of Education has requested the entire surplus be put toward better funding our public school system.
This, however, is unlikely to happen if the Utah Legislature follows the same funding patterns it has for nearly two decades and adheres to Gov. Gary Herbert's budget request, which would send $140 million of that Education Fund surplus to higher education.
I do not begrudge higher education increases in funding, but I am concerned about the continued erosion of the Education Fund.
Utah's government is financed through two primary funds: Education Fund and General Fund. All income tax revenues flow to the Education Fund. Prior to 1996, the Education Fund could only be used to fund public education. We were not last in per-pupil funding among the states in 1996, and the difference in per-pupil funding between Utah and the national average was just over $2,000. That year, an amendment to the Utah Constitution allowed the Education Fund to be used for higher education. It was argued that such would allow flexibility between the funds, but that the intent was not to fund higher education principally from the Education Fund.
Unfortunately, as new projects, such as Interstate 15 reconstruction in Utah County, took center stage, there was insufficient money in the General Fund to finance these new projects. The practice of supplanting General Fund monies in the higher education budget with Education Fund monies became common practice. This practice freed monies in the General Fund for other high-priority projects. Over time, higher education was given Education Fund surplus to fund new operations and construct buildings.
Last year, we passed the 50 percent threshold; $393 million for higher education came from the General Fund, while $524 million came from the Education Fund.
If we want to do something about public education funding, we need to stop this practice. We must stop using the Education Fund to support higher education. That alone could boost public education out of 50th place in per-pupil spending.
We in Utah tend to get the biggest bang for the buck in public education. That's not just me saying it; it is also the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
For example, we have seen dramatic increases in the level of achievement in Utah's public schools. In 2007, Utah was 28th in fourth-grade reading and 29th in fourth-grade math. Today, we rank 13th in fourth-grade reading and 14th in fourth-grade math. In 2007, Utah ranked 29th in eight-grade reading and 30th in eighth-grade math. Today, we rank 9th in eight-grade reading and 13th in eighth-grade math. Our achievement gap in fourth-grade reading has gone from 25th place in 2007 to 6th place today. High school graduation rates went from 69 percent in 2008 to 84 percent today.
Our schools have made these vast improvements while still ranking last in per-pupil funding. We make the most of the funding we have. Such improvements will continue, as the state board has recently adopted a new strategic plan.
It is easy for the state board to take such a position on funding, as our charge is limited by the Utah Constitution to the "general control and supervision of the public education system." Unlike the governor, we don't worry about other state executive agencies, like higher education. But that is exactly the reason you have an independent state board, an entity that focuses on the education of your children.
The state board's position is fiscally sound. It is one that keeps with the spirit of the 1996 amendment and what was represented to our citizenry at the time. Please join us in contacting your elected representatives and insisting that the Education Fund surplus only go toward public education now and in the future.
David L. Thomas is the first vice chair of the Utah State Board of Education. He is a former Utah state senator and works as deputy county attorney in Summit County.