Voters next year could change how public schools in Utah are funded
Education funding has often been a hot topic in the Utah Legislature, and the 2023 general session was no different.
Despite a guarantee in the state constitution to help fund public education, Utah is among the last in the country for its per-student spending. Legislators and public schools agree a change is needed to help address a lack of funding amid rising costs, but have struggled to find a solution.
State representatives and education stakeholders reached an agreement in the final days of the session to make changes to a constitutional earmark that reserves income taxes – which have grown at a significant rate – for school finances, though the proposed solution will ultimately be up to voters in 2024.
The Utah Legislature in the final days of the session passed S.J.R. 10, which amends income taxes in the state constitution. That paves the way for the requirement that income tax revenue be used to fund public and higher education as well as services for children and people with disabilities to be loosened, allowing the revenue to be used for other essential programs. The bill requires the state to “maintain a statutory public education funding framework” that would use “a portion” of revenue growth for changes in student enrollment and inflation.
Legislators say the change is necessary to assure flexibility in meeting state needs, while continuing to protect public education funding. If voters approve the amendment on the 2024 ballot, the Legislature would remove the state portion of the sales tax on food.
“Education funding is a top priority for Utahns and a top priority for the Utah Legislature,” said Rep. Karen Peterson, R-Clinton, in a statement. “We recognize the value of a constitutionally dedicated revenue source to fund education. As such, this proposal leaves that in place and prioritizes education by putting constitutional safeguards to fund enrollment growth and adjust for inflation before using income tax revenue to fund other state needs.”
Critics of the change, including Democrat Rep. Brian King, who represents a portion of Summit County, argued it offers a weak commitment. Educational stakeholders shared similar concerns earlier in the session but said they reached a compromise with legislators last week to ensure support for students.
The Joint Legislative Committee, a group composed of members from the Utah School Boards Association, the Utah School Superintendents Association and the Utah Association of School Business Officials, and an organization that the Park City School District belongs to, supported S.J.R. 10 following commitments to increase the weighted pupil unit (WPU) by 2% upon the amendment’s passage and to use savings from an enrollment freeze to provide additional increases to the WPU value.
K-12 schools in Utah currently receive around $4,000 for each student who enrolls, though school districts often spend more. Public schools rely on property taxes to help make up for the difference in education funding.
Park City School District spokesperson Heidi Matthews, who previously served as the president of the Utah Education Association, said the district is better positioned than other schools in the state because the community generates much more in property taxes. However, some of that is sent back to the state to support other districts
If the School District, for example, qualified for $23 million based on state revenue but it generated $40 million, it would not receive any funding from the state. Instead, it would send back the extra $17 million to help offset the budget set by the Legislature.
“It’s different from other districts where they do not generate enough property tax on the basic levy rate” only to exceed what they’re getting from state funding, said Randy Upton, the business administrator of the School District.
If voters approve the amendment, it’s unclear how exactly state funding for Park City Schools would change. While there are assurances currently in place, there’s a risk that a portion of the funds previously set aside for education will be used for other purposes. An increase in the WPU could also result in the School District paying less back to the state.
The 2023 budget for the School District’s general fund was set at $107 million, Upton said, and approximately $23 million will be paid back to the state. The figure is larger than in previous years because property assessments have increased.
The Legislature on Friday also passed H.B 394, which will increase per-pupil state funding this year by 6% and reallocate funds from enrollment decreases into the state’s student spending. It’s been regarded as a good-faith effort while negotiations between legislators and education stakeholders are ongoing.
Matthews hopes to continue seeing a strong commitment from state legislators to help financially support education. While this legislation would provide budgetary flexibility to the state, she said she wants to see the revenue allocated fairly and the funds extended beyond inflationary increases to help address the needs of students attending public schools.
“The funding for education in Utah has, despite the constitutional guarantee, been about the will of the Legislature in terms of the distribution,” she said.