Each election season, candidates for state offices assure their constituents that education is the most important issue for the state of Utah. What is printed on their election brochure and the reality of what happens are two different things. It is all a matter of priorities
In the 1980s, the per-child funding for education in Utah was at the national average. Years before, some forward-thinking statesman in our Legislature knew that we needed a stable source of funding for schools. They decided to use all of our state income tax money for kindergarten through 12th-grade education and set up the Uniform School Fund (education fund) for public education separate from the General Fund.
In the last 25 years, during each legislative session, the funding for education has lost a little more footing. Bit by bit the funding has not kept pace with needs. In 1995, there was a constitutional amendment proposed that would allow income tax money to be used for higher education. Higher education had always been funded from the general fund.
Teachers were concerned; but they were told that if they did not back the amendment, the income tax rate would be lowered. Also the two educational communities did not like the idea of having to compete with one other when they both have the same goal -- education. The amendment passed.
In 1997, public education was receiving 95.6 percent of the income tax money (4.4 percent went to debt services and administrative costs); but in 2007, public education received 77.5 percent. For 2011, the funding is back to 87.8 percent basically because of the recession. Be aware that higher education was cut drastically in 2010.
The education fund has lost and will continue to lose approximately $220 million each year since the state changed the income tax to basically a "flat tax." It is often rumored that during the 1990s, the Legislature actually cut taxes by a $1 billion. I don't remember exactly how I used my additional money.
When I was serving as a representative, my constituents basically told me not to raise their taxes, but don't worry about giving them a little back. They requested that I take the taxes they paid and use them wisely.
Concerning funding per child, Utah is the last in the nation by more than $1,000. A few years back, Mississippi cheered at an education meeting when they were no longer the bottom. Educators for years have warned that in time, underfunding would hurt our schools. The latest statistics show that when we are compared to states with the same demographics, we do not do very well. Some say that money will not help education. I beg to differ. Executives from major companies will not bring their families to Utah because of our educational system.
We have many great, hard-working teachers in our Utah schools. We have huge classrooms. We want good technology in our schools. We have legislators that are "dreaming up" ways to improve education by doing away with the 12th grade, closing the deaf and blind school, or grading schools. Our Legislature worries over taking federal money and then sends only about 50 percent of it to the schools.
Recently in a newspaper article, legislators from the northern part of the state were asked about their legislative priorities. Building a juvenile courthouse was mentioned along with a building for WSU Davis Campus. I am sure these buildings are needed; but when asked about education, these were the statements: "They also want to see more money go to education, if possible." "Education is in need of more funding, but lawmakers are not sure if they will be able to find it."
It will take a sacrifice from all of us to get education funding back to an appropriate level. At some point we will have to "step up to the plate" and do what is necessary to take care of all the children of our state. It can be done, but it might hurt.
We have had some tight years, but we just keep digging the hole deeper and deeper. Last year, 11,000 students were not funded in our schools. The schools had to absorb those children, and they did. This year there is 14,500 new students. Will they be funded? Good question!
Utah's recent economic success is due largely to generous investments in public education made by previous generations. What kind of economy will our children and grandchildren inherit from the miserly treatment of education in the last decade? More importantly, what about Utah families? Two major studies last year showed the biggest factor in the health of individual families was the educational level of the parents.
If we really believe in the importance of the family, we need to stop the downward spiral of support for Utah's public education system.
Shurtliff, who lives in Ogden, is a former Utah state representative.