Tax cutbacks would not hurt public education if the state's education leaders had the flexibility and vision to look at the system and recognize that it doesn't have to remain the way it is, a spokesman for the Utah Tax Coalition said.
Lee Allen, tax-cut proponent, argues that education is and always has been a high priority item in Utah. If the tax initiatives pass and the Legislature chooses to change priorities on state needs, education could come out even higher on the list than it now is."Other departments would receive a greater percentage of overall cuts," he predicted. "That's the only reasonable way to look at it. Under no circumstances, despite differences of opinion, would education get a smaller proportion of the budget."
Utah is facing only a temporary burden on its educational system, Allen said. By 1991 student numbers are expected to begin leveling, and the financial crunch will ease commensurately.
Adding one to two students to each classroom for the interim period would absorb the budget reductions caused by the tax reductions, Allen said.
Research, in fact, has not proved that lower class sizes are a factor in student achievement, he said. A Rochester
University survey of studies related to performance as an effect of student/teacher ratios did not prove any such correlation, he said. A total of 147 studies was reviewed and only 23 showed a significant relationship between the size of the class and student outcomes.
In the early 1980s, when classes were larger than they are now, Utah students were performing better, Allen said. He was critical of testing methods in the state that indicate students are doing better academically when, in reality, they could be doing worse.
Tests being used in many Utah districts normed in 1981, he said. Use of those tests ignores the fact that there has been an increase in performance nationally among the students against whom Utah is compared.
If Utah students had been tested against more recent norms, they would not be performing as well as the state Office of Education indicates, Allen said.
"If the reality is that our students are doing worse, what we don't want to do is more of what we have been doing," he said.
Allen said the initiative that would provide a tax credit for families who enroll students in private schools "could easily be renamed the public school survival act."
If enough parents were encouraged by the tax break to put their children in private schools, pressure on the public system would be reduced. Over time, it would free up much more money than would be lost initially, Allen said.
If Utah reached the national average of private school attendance (13 percent), $70 million to $75 million would be realized in savings for the public school system, he said. The proposed amount to be granted to the parents of private students as a tax break would be much less than the amount the state spends per pupil in the public system, Allen said.
A performance audit of the state Office of Education last year proved the office to be inefficient, Allen said. If the problems in the state office were corrected, there would be tremendous savings that could be used to resolve problems at the classroom level.
Allen said he visited an eastern Utah school district with 5,000 students and found it has three assistant administrators - an unwarranted waste of money, in his opinion.
School districts could probably realize significant savings by privatizing such items as school lunches and transportation, he said. Turning to the private sector for these types of services has proved effective in some districts and could save tens of millions of dollars if done systemwide.
"But they couldn't do it any cheaper unless they were allowed to pay bus drivers the prevailing wage. Drivers now are being paid twice that wage.
"Districts should look at these options before cutting programs," he said.
Allen believes that the reported shortage in textbooks and supplies in Utah schools is "a statewide outrage. With over a billion dollars to be spent on public education it's unthinkable that our students don't have the textbooks they need. It's crazy that it gets no more priority."
He also said there appears to be little relationship between teacher pay and student performance and questioned that Utah is losing good teachers because of the pay issue. When cost-of-living factors are considered, Utah teachers are doing as well as more highly paid teachers in other areas of the country, he said.
Teacher discontent in Utah is more an effect of oppressive administration in some districts and union "haranguing" that keeps them stirred up, Allen said. Reforms that would give teachers more input into the system and give them pay based on performance would resolve much of the discontent, he believes.
The debate on the tax iniatives has served a useful purpose in getting education issues before the public, Allen said.