SALT LAKE CITY -- The future of Utah's schools comes down to one simple thing this year: money.
How much money will state lawmakers have to pump into Utah schools is always the dominant issue each legislative session, but this year there is an added element of uncertainty. Fiscal issues in Washington, D.C., including the pending fiscal cliff, caused projected state revenues to go from black to red in a hurry.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, is currently in his 33rd year in the Legislature and is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which oversees funding for all of the key Senate committees, including education.
He makes no bones about the challenges and said money will drive the discussion.
"How much money will we have? What are the priorities of the education subcommittee? Those are two extremes. Hopefully, we'll let education come back and say 'these are our priorities,' and we'll see how much money we have at the end," Hillyard said.
State Democrats released a 14-page outline of education in the session's first week, suggesting Utah schools are failing, and state leaders are failing public schools. The outline says Utah ranks 38th among states for public education. Utah also ranks last in the nation in per pupil spending.
Several Democrats have proposed different bills this year to find additional revenue, including a proposal from Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, to change the state tax code. But changes that result in new taxes seem unlikely, key GOP leaders said.
House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart, R-Provo, says talk about raising taxes to fund education is an annual thing. She doesn't think any move to increase taxes will gain traction.
"It's a little early to lay down what exactly is going to happen, but both public and higher education will be talking about these kinds of things, and discussions will be happening over the next couple of weeks," Lockhart said.
State analysts are expected to release revenue numbers Feb. 19, which will allow the budget process to move forward. Estimates on what those numbers will show have ranged from projected deficits of $50 million to $300 million, to a small surplus.
Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said funding education has been a priority since he has been on the Hill, but change in the long run will be based on how much money there is to spend.
One of the challenges in funding education is Utah's growth pattern. State schools have grown at approximately 2.2 percent over the past few years, forcing leaders to scramble to fund the growth just to keep the status quo, let alone find new revenue for teachers and programs.
Ironically, Utah dedicates a greater percentage of its budget every year to education than almost any state in the nation. Utah's constitution dictates that 100 percent of individual and corporate income tax is dedicated to education.
Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said the state's growth, fueled by larger-than-average families, will probably make it difficult to ever rank among the nation's leaders in per pupil spending, but he noted that leaders have educational programs and spending is held safe harmless, or avoided making cuts while other state programs and agencies have been reduced.
The challenges aside, almost every Top of Utah politician says funding education is atop their priority list, said Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, who is on an education appropriations committee.
"Because the No.1 priority for my legislative service is public and higher education, it demands the bulk of my effort. It's frustrating that we struggle to adequately fund our education system -- and especially this year," Handy said.
"Frankly, we are going to have to take a very hard look at our taxing structure because I, and many of my colleagues, am becoming increasingly aware that Utah is falling behind," he said.
Some key state leaders want to move the discussion of education from something more than just funding.
Sen. Wayne Niederhauser wants to see the state education system simplified so student outcome is the focus. The biggest outcome he is pressing is to help local students align themselves with the work force, so they will be able to find employment at the end of the public and higher education process.
Adams said the world is changing and Utah can be at the forefront of that change.
"We'll see a change in education. Where do we want to go and what do we want to happen? How do we keep focused on the end goal and keep educating some of the brightest and best in the nation?" Adams asked.
Rep. Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace, wants to look closely at what students are learning and how they are learning. He wants to see opportunities in the area of science and technology made available earlier for students. He said funding those programs and curricula is a wise move and will help local students in a global environment.
Still he is worried about getting involved in too much of the detail beyond funding.
"I have always tried to stress we're not the largest school board in the state," Dee said.