How We Might Prove that Education Funding Really is Our Top Priority

Ask any legislator and the Governor what their top public policy priority is and you’ll usually get the same answer, education.

However, in my experience, that prioritization can mean many things. Some want more innovation, greater accountability, i.e. school grading, more choice, more rigor, more technology, more emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math. The list goes on and on.

But the fact of the matter is, Utah’s public education system is underfunded, and not by just a little.

This was brought home to me again last week as Davis County legislators met with our Davis School District.

We enjoyed an eye-popping presentation about technology, energy efficiency, and teacher evaluation. In fact, Sen. Stuart Adams suggested that we give administrators and board members a round of applause, which we enthusiastically did.

And then came a discussion about teacher shortages. There just isn’t a deep pool of quality teachers in math, science, and even English coming out of college right now and it’s a growing and critical problem. It doesn’t take any amount of brilliance to figure out why, of course, it’s basic economics, teachers just can’t make a family-supporting living. And budgets are so stretched, teachers and administrators in the Davis District have had to take at least three, leave-without-pay days over the past few years. To me that’s disgraceful. Knowing this, would you go into education? Uh, I didn’t think so.

Also, from just a pure economic standpoint, it’s next to impossible for Utah school districts to compete for newly-graduated teachers qualified to teach pre-engineering when they can start in Wyoming for $49,000 or go to Oregon and receive a multi-thousand-dollar signing bonus. So we can fund STEM initiatives ‘til the cows come home in Utah in response to industry and business needs but if we can’t adequately pay qualified teachers to attract the best and brightest who will teach the curriculum?

The 2% increase we were able to add to the WPU in the 2013 legislative session had hardly any effect at all in terms of paycheck impact. It went mostly to cover required costs such as medical and retirement. But I do agree with Natalie Gochnour’s op-ed in the Deseret News on Dec. 6 that Governor Herbert’s 2014 education budget is a step in the right direction, albeit a baby one.

And I get that we are a relatively poor state with large families. To increase taxes to the levels we need is just not politically, economically, or practically feasible. What to do?

Recently, I had the legislature’s fiscal analyst play a little game of “What If” with me. What if we considered a tax shift? Here’s what they came up with—

Out of this year’s $12.9 billion budget, state revenue sources are about $5.5 billion. Exempting out public education and higher education, that leaves $1.7 billion and change. What if we took a 10% haircut off that amount and directed it to public education for five years, what would it look like? Well, that’s an additional $170 million a year or $850 million over five years. This means no new taxes but instead a re-prioritization of expenditures for the greater public good, what everyone claims is their top priority, education, and specifically public education.

As I’ve discussed this idea with numerous individuals the response is usually something like this, “Great idea, Steve, but don’t gore my ox,” or words to that effect. And I appreciate the fact that it would be difficult to reduce funding in the social services area when those needs are so great and growing.

I sort of shelved the idea until recently when I became aware of an initiative from the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget entitled, SUCCESS. This initiative in operational excellence has the goal of improving efficiencies in state government by 25% over the next four years.

So, it’s as we’ve all known at all levels of government, there’s some fat in there. Knowing that, what if we really did shift taxes, at least temporarily, from a portion of that programmed 25% in efficiencies to shore up what everyone claims is their number one priority, public education?

What if?