When it comes to paying state taxes, you’ve got it good, Utah.
You may not agree with that, especially if you just finished sending your annual property tax payment to the county. But your total tax burden is, according to the most recent data, $111.36 per $1,000 in income, which is close to being the lowest it’s been in two decades.
So, not to get all wonky on you (I know how you all love doing math), but here’s another number to consider — $2.9 billion. That’s how much more tax money it would take to raise the state from its current last place in per pupil expenditures for education to the national average.
Are you up to it?
That won’t get you to the top of the list, mind you. Doing so would take much more. We’re talking average, here. Put another way, becoming average would cost you 70 percent more than you’re currently paying.
These figures are from the Utah Foundation’s latest report on education revenue and spending, titled, “Getting by with less.”
Of course the $2.9 billion question is, what would you get for that money?
And that one is closely followed by the next $2.9 billion question, which is, what would you lose? You can’t take that kind of money out of the local economy without feeling it somewhere, and perhaps everywhere.
Well, relax. No one is asking you for that much, least of all me. I subscribe to the theory promoted by researcher Eric Hanushek, referenced in the report, that more money alone won’t necessarily improve education. We have to know what we’re getting.
The per pupil expenditure figure never has had much relevance in a state that has more kids to teach and fewer adults to pay for it than any other.
But while I feel Utah and the rest of the nation need to rethink the Industrial Age model of public education, even I have to acknowledge that money and education are not completely disconnected. Taking it away won’t improve education, either.
As the report notes, 20 years ago Utah ranked seventh in the amount of money it spent on education for every $1,000 of personal income, which is a more relevant statistic than how much we pay per student. Today it ranks a dismal 37th.
We changed the state constitution to allow some income tax money to go toward higher education. We adopted a flat income tax rate. We also passed a strict law that keeps property taxes from rising with inflation. We did a lot of other things, too, to lower taxes. I’m guessing a lot of people aren’t too upset by all this, but it has affected schools.
So it comes down to this: We can pay more without any certainty that we’ll get more, we can continue paying less and hope the schools somehow get by, or we can search for a third way — some radical reform that changes how it’s all run.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like paying without knowing what I’ll get. But frankly, we aren’t going to get to a third way under the current setup. Utah has a rudderless education system, with lawmakers, the governor, the State Board of Education, the Office of Education and the superintendent all tugging at it.
Here’s one simple idea that would help. A recent state audit found that some teachers — those in history or physical education, for instance — actually earn almost as much or more than their counterparts in the private sector. Those who teach computer science, math and engineering, however, make considerably less than what they could earn in the private sector.
Why not coax districts into paying those teachers more? Set up a salary schedule that mirrors the private sector. That surely would solve some of the teacher shortage problem.
Is that too radical?
The truth is this might be a rare moment of opportunity. Taxes are relatively low. The state’s economy is strong. Polls show many people willing to pay a bit more for education.
But without a clear direction and concrete plans for how more money can translate into results, the moment is likely to pass.