I find the question of whether we should abandon the metric that Utah ranks 51st in the country in per pupil expenditure humorous (“Virtue and vice,” June 6). It’s a fact! I’m sure Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, as well as other legislators, parents and educators are all tired of this statistic, and of trying to explain it. Frankly, the stat is an embarrassment to the state. But it’s still a fact, and not something to be dismissed or ignored.
While increased educational funding is no guarantee of better outcomes for students, decreased funding does impact the quality of education our students receive. Low funding correlates to larger class sizes, less support for students, lower teacher morale and poorer economic development for the state. Low education funding also has a disproportionate impact on students of color and students of low socioeconomic status who often require additional support in schools.
Before Sen. Stephenson, state Superintendent Brad Smith and others question the need for increased education funding, perhaps we should look at the last 20–30 years of legislative history, and the systematic decrease in funding for schools.
School funds are no longer dedicated. A constitutional amendment passed in 1996 (Proposition 6) allowed income tax revenues to be used for higher education, as well as K-12 public schools. By using income tax revenues to fund higher education needs, legislative appropriators freed up general fund monies for other priorities. Public education lost its revenue protection and now must compete with many other state programs. As a result, Utah’s funding for public education decreased significantly since 1996.
Diversion of funds. During the 2007 general session, the Utah Legislature passed two bills, House Bill 314-02 and Substitute House Bill 383, which moved sales tax revenues into the transportation fund. Diversion of general fund monies left fewer resources available for public schools.
Tax exemptions. Legislative efforts have increased the number of sales tax exemptions and corporate property tax breaks from 11 in 1981 to more than 68 today — a 600 percent increase represented by approximately $45 million lost to schools each year.
Property tax cuts. Steady cuts to the basic minimum property tax over the past 25 years reduced funds for schools. Instead, large tax cuts went to businesses and homeowners who already had property tax burdens well below national average.
The Legislature has consistently cut the basic property tax rate over the past 18 years. The minimum basic school tax rate in 1994-95 raised $274 million for the basic school program. Consistent rate cuts over the years dropped the contribution to $232 million in 2014-15. Significant increases in property values since fiscal year 2007 increase the yield back to the fiscal year 1995 amount of 274 million, but the actual tax rate dropped. Had the property tax rate remained what it was in 1994, $884 million would have been raised — a difference of $613 million. This translates to a nearly 21 percent revenue increase to the basic minimum school program, which could have been used in a multitude of productive ways.
Perhaps a good place to start increasing the amount of money allocated for public schools is to stop cutting. Stop adding additional tax exemptions. Stop diverting funds. Quit asking for corporate tax breaks.
The fact remains Utah is 51st in per pupil education spending, which clearly impacts the quality of education provided for our students. If the focus for our legislators is improving schools and attracting business to Utah, providing appropriate funding for K-12 schools should be a top priority.
Obviously, problems that have taken 30 years to create cannot be fixed overnight. The 2015 general session’s 4 percent increase in the weighted pupil unit (WPU) is a good start, and I thank the well-meaning legislators who voted for this increase. Do that each year for the next four years, and we could escape the cellar.
However, based on legislative history, educators, parents, students and concerned members of our community should continue to point out our national per-pupil ranking. Embrace it! We own it! Here’s looking forward to the day we can proudly say, “We’re 50th!”
Jonathan Gochberg is a lifelong educator currently serving as principal of Sunset Junior High in the Davis School District. He is also a doctoral candidate in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Utah.