clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Vouchers could save schools money

For the past several years, Utah demographers have predicted 150,000 new students would be entering Utah schools between 2004 and 2015. They were wrong. The numbers are proving to be much larger.

Projections have been consistently low. This tidal wave of students means increased costs on two fronts: buildings and teachers. Assuming 1,500 students per school, Utah will need more than 100 new school buildings. And with buildings costing approximately $20,000 per student, taxpayers will have to find more than $3 billion more just for these new students.

All those students will also need teachers. To preserve the current average class size of 22.1, Utah will need another 7,240 teachers. Even if we increased the average class size to 30 (and it's hard to imagine anyone letting that happen), Utah would still need another 5,333 teachers. With an average starting teacher's salary and benefits package costing $27,437, these additional teachers will cost another $198 million per year. With more than half of teachers expected to retire in the next 10 years, just hiring teachers at any price will be difficult.

The districts already confronting this explosive growth have moved to or are considering year-round school. However, year-round school can only cut these numbers by 25 percent to 30 percent. Another $2.25 billion in schools and $149 million per year in salaries and benefits is still a tremendous increase.

How will we pay for all these new students?

Utah has two options: raise income and property taxes even more, or accept lower spending per student. As Rep. Sheryl Allen and other voucher opponents rightly point out, Utah already spends less per child than any other state. And spending less per child would almost certainly mean higher class sizes, since our relatively low teacher pay makes it difficult to recruit enough teachers. The Legislature will do everything possible to avoid cutting education spending.

As the recent uproar over increased property taxes in Bountiful, Huntsville and the rest of Utah shows, hiking property taxes is also not a viable option. And with the national and world economy teetering on the brink of a recession, it hardly seems wise to raise income taxes and slam the brakes on Utah's economy.

Instead, I worked with Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and leaders in the Legislature to craft a way to release some of the pressure this tidal wave of students is creating. HB148 asks for parents to volunteer for the state to spend $2,000 on their child, instead of the $7,500 Utah normally spends. Each time a parent takes that offer, we can use the $5,500 savings to pay for one of the new students coming into Utah.

When HB148 is fully implemented and every Utah student is eligible for a voucher, if 12,500 public school students use a voucher, Utah will have another $7.8 million per year to spend on the rest of the students. If a voucher persuades 22,500 public school students to attend a private school, Utah will have another $52.8 million per year to spend.

Utah has larger families than any other state. Those children are our greatest resource. We have the obligation to prepare them for the future. I am for Referendum No. 1 because I care about public education. We have serious problems to confront. I will not sit idly by, just hoping that a solution for this tidal wave of students will just materialize. Please join me in voting for Referendum No. 1.

Sen. Howard Stephenson is president of the Utah Taxpayers Association.