This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
The problem began many years ago when our State Legislature drew boundaries for its school districts and authorized them with local taxing authority. The idea was to enable local control. Specifically, the plan was to empower locally elected school officials to manage the financial needs of their neighborhood schools. Unfortunately, these districts were not created with funding equity in mind. Now equal funding is a real problem, one that is destined to be fought in our courts if we don't solve it soon.
Under our state Constitution, we are obligated to provide a "free education for every child" in our state. Under federal law, we are also obligated to provide an "equal education" to every child in public education. That is a tall order, but it can be done, with help from the state Legislature.
In fact, in Utah we are recognized as one of the most equitable states in the country when it comes to how we distribute income tax revenue for education. The state collects tax from every citizen, then distributes that funding to every school through an equity-based formula called the Weighted Pupil Unit (WPU). Under this model every enrolled student is allocated an equal amount from the state to their local school.
However, state income tax revenue only provides for about 50 percent of the total funding needed to support our local schools. About 10 percent comes from the Federal Government, and the remaining 40 percent comes from local property taxes. That's where we get into trouble. Here is why:
Different Valuations • Each school district has wildly different property valuations. Park City has an average property valuation well over $2.7 million per student. While Jordan School District has an average valuation of just over $305,000 per student.
Different student challenges • Each school district has very different student growth challenges. Some districts like Nebo, Alpine, and Jordan are growing rapidly, while others like Salt Lake see declining student counts but face difficult diversity issues and costs.
Disparate tax burdens/revenues • Each school district has had to levy different tax rates to meet their local needs, resulting in high tax burdens for some citizens and low tax burdens for others. Some districts like Park City have a tax rate much lower than the state average, but generate far more revenue than the average district. While some districts like Jordan have much higher tax rates than the majority of Utah school districts, but generate less than half the revenue of the average district.
This disparity is a serious challenge. It is fundamentally bad tax policy for some citizens to have a higher tax burden than others because of where they live. It is also fundamentally bad education policy to enable some districts to have more revenue per student (and therefore a better education opportunity). The net gap between the "haves" and the "have nots" is nearly $300 million in our state! This needs to be fixed, and soon.
Unfortunately, many attempts have been made to equalize existing revenues between districts. This approach is known as the "Robin Hood Effect". This has not and never will work politically. The time has come for the state to enable new revenue via our existing statewide property tax levy, and share that cost across the entire state. I believe the solution is to lock our State minimum basic property tax levy so that as property values increase, so will new revenue. This new money can then be equalized via a formula to flow to districts that need it most. It will likely take 10 to 15 years, but we can solve the equalization problem.
In the end, as a state Legislature we can solve this problem ourselves, or we can wait until a lawsuit happens that will force us to make these changes by court mandate. The choice is ours and the time has come to act.
Aaron Osmond is a Utah state senator representing southwest Salt Lake County.