New reports show changes to Utah tax policies over the past decade have eroded public education funding by more than $1 billion per year.
Despite fairly generous increases over two of the past three fiscal years, Utah’s spending on Public Education still lags behind the rest of the country. Utah’s “funding effort”— defined as Public Education revenues per $1,000 in personal income—for Public Education has fallen from a high of 12th place in the nation to 34th place in 2005. This decline has kept us last in the nation in per-pupil spending by an ever-increasing margin.
The School Funding and Tax Policy Series I-IV issued by Utahns for Public Schools (UTPS) highlights legislative policy changes that are responsible for Utah’s decline in Public Education funding effort. In addition, it is a warning that if these trends persist, they will continue to significantly limit funding to Public Education in the future. These research reports find that systemic, if not systematic, changes have occurred in the past decade that, if reversed, would bring more than a $1 billion in revenue back into Public Education.
Utahns for Public Schools recommends that the Legislature reconsider its actions of the last decade and once again conclude that Public Education should be its top long-term economic development priority. It is imperative we have a tax system that is fair, equitable, broad-based, stable, and in sync with our economy, along with a school funding system that meets the needs of our children, ensuring adequate class sizes and quality educational opportunities for all students. The revenues invested in public schools are an investment in our state’s future. Public education should be funded at a level that meets the educational needs of Utah’s children, which will help to ensure the state’s economic future.
It always comes down to funding. Funding seems to shrink as educational expectations increase. Public schools across the state cut programs and staff to balance budgets. The recent economic downturn, changes to the tax structure and expensive mandates have stretched education dollars. Record-breaking enrollments and more students with educational challenges also strain budgets, and yet education-funding efforts decline.
What can we do? Public involvement matters in school funding decisions. The public offers a valuable point of view and link to the schools and community.
We need to examine closely the claim by some that our public schools have enough money. Do schools have enough money to meet high expectations for all students or have schools been set up for disappointment by demanding something without the resources to be successful? Can society hold public schools accountable for high achievement on one hand and yet deny funding for many of the tools that are proven to work? Limited resources cause instability that leads to short-term planning and patchwork solutions. For far too long, the missing perspective in funding decisions is the voice of the largest stakeholder in public education—the parents.
Parents are the largest group of stakeholders in the public schools and the ones with the most at stake—their children’s future. During difficult financial times, their involvement is even more important. Parents must insist on a level of funding for public schools so that truly no child is left behind. How does Utah’s lower spending level impact schools and student learning? Some recent and other not so recent changes in the Utah tax structure have resulted in a diminished ability to pay for public education, including class size reduction, attracting and retaining quality teachers, and up-to-date materials and technology. The Legislative Fiscal Analyst estimated revenue loss from the latest income tax reform at $220 million per year including all provisions. Eliminating the 5 brackets, which ranged from 2% to 7%, will lower revenues to Utah’s schools by millions per year.
Utah spent an average of $5,437 per pupil in 2005-2006, compared to $9,138 nationally. The gap between Utah and U.S. average per pupil expenditures equals $3,702. Utah’s five peer states (identified in Utah Foundation’s 2008 report as being demographically similar to Utah) spent between $7,700 and $10,000 per pupil. (Kroes, What Can $3,702 Buy? How Utah Compares in Education Spending and Services, 2008)
What happened to Utah's Education Paradox?
Over the past ten years, Utah Foundation has published a number of reports on public education funding. Several of these reports explained “Utah’s education paradox” which was that Utah spent a higher proportion of personal income on K-12 public education than most other states while also spending less per pupil than any other state in the nation. This gap was largely explained by Utah’s unique demographic makeup; with very high birth rates and a very young population, there were many school-aged children. During the education paradox years (up to the mid-1990s), Utah’s funding effort ranked in the top ten nationally, but state demographics caused low per-pupil spending. However, by the late 1990s and early 2000s the paradox lessened as the funding effort slowed. The 2006 report showed that Utah’s education paradox no longer existed. Utah was still last in the nation for per-pupil spending, but funding effort was no longer remarkable, having fallen to around the national average. (Kroes, Utah’s Education Funding Effort: Update and Historical Perspective, 2007)
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