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Is an education crisis looming?

Wages will fund school growth, expert predicts

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Population experts predict that 100,000 more students will be in Utah schools within the next 30 years, and education experts are predicting disaster unless funding policies change before then.

But Michael Christensen, director of the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, is more optimistic. He says Utah's working population will also grow and generate the money to underwrite education.

"I don't believe it'll be the crisis as perpetuated by our educators and so forth. If the economy keeps rolling along, the 100,000 student increase will be nowhere near what is often portrayed," Christensen told University of Phoenix faculty in a campus lecture Friday.

Right now there are 36 children in school for every 100 working adults. By 2030 that number is expected to rise only to 39 per 100.

Utah struggles to fund public education (historically battling Mississippi for the state with lowest per-student spending) because of its unique family demographics, Christensen said, but these demographics will work to Utah's benefit in the future.

Because of the state's high fertility rate, children make up a larger portion of the population than in the rest of the nation. Working adults who have to pay the taxes for everyone else make up only 60 percent of the population. That's why Utah offers relatively few public services despite maintaining one of the highest tax loads in the nation.

"But I like to think of it as doing our part to fund Social Security," Christensen said jokingly about Utah's large families.

In all seriousness, Christensen believes Utah's large young population will be its greatest economic asset when they grow up.

States with low growth rates have declining labor markets. Some states have even resorted to recruiting workers internationally to provide their industries with a strong work force.

"But we can promise a good work force for a good buy," Christensen said.

Despite his optimism about Utah's ability to pay for education in the future, Christensen still believes it should be a high priority for the state, to ensure a well-trained labor force for the future.

"If we focus on making sure all these kids we produce with our high fertility rate get a good education, we'll be OK," he said. "We don't need to worry about offering tax breaks or incentives (to industries), we need to focus on improving our education system."

But Christensen also admits this relies on continued economic growth. The employment rate declined two years in a row in 2002 and 2003 for the first time in decades. It is now improving "but at a relatively modest pace," he said.

That anticipated 100,000 student spike "could be a tremendous burden if our economy doesn't produce jobs" and continue growing, Christensen admitted.

Another worry is students moving out of state to work after being educated in state-funded universities. Christensen also admitted that this is a persistent concern, but he does not anticipate it happening enough to make a difference.

E-mail: akirk@desnews.com