It’s Time to Stop the ‘Edsel’ Public School Funding

If you build a new car, with lots of new technological gizmos, and you name it after your son Edsel, but it doesn’t sell, you stop production. At the urging of the Governor and legislators and their experts, Utah voters passed a constitutional amendment in 1996, which allowed income taxes to be spent not only on K-12 public education, but for the first time also on higher education. This “Edsel” amendment has not lived up to its promise of continuing to provide adequate funding for K-12 public education while at the same time increasing flexibility in the state’s budget process.

To be sure, it has increased budgeting flexibility for the state’s budgeters. Since the amendment passed, the legislature has annually moved millions of dollars within the Education Fund from the K-12 budget into higher education budgets, in increasingly larger amounts, which has reduced budget transparency and integrity.

It’s a three-step process: first, shift money within the Education Fund from K-12 education to Higher Education. Then reduce appropriations for Higher Education from its usual funding source: the General Fund. That frees up money in the General Fund that would have funded our colleges and universities to go to other parts of the state budget, such as roads.

It’s happening again this year. In Governor Herbert’s recently announced budget for fiscal year 2015, he increases Education Fund transfers from public education to higher education by 50%, from $307 to $451 million (step 1). But overall spending on Higher Education does not increase (step 2), because General Fund dollars are transferred out of higher education into other areas of the state budget ($92 million transfer, Budget Recommendations, page 32 – step 3).

Interestingly the Governor’s published Budget Recommendations documents the $500 million in sales tax earmarks shifted out of the General Fund made possible by using this three-step budget waltz (Budget Recommendations, p. 41). By shifting income tax dollars within the Education Fund and setting in motion this budget game, are we spending the income tax the way the 1996 constitutional amendment requires: “all revenues from taxes on income… shall be allocated to the support of the public education system and the higher education system.”

It is time to stop producing Edsels.  If we returned to the 1946 constitutional amendment, in which Utah voters wisely earmarked income taxes to K-12 education only, we would have an additional $451 million for K-12 public schools next year. This restriction helped fund a K-12 system that led to academic performance in the top 15 states in the nation. It would generate a sorely needed increase to K-12 spending which would lift Utah out of the basement of per pupil spending and provide funds for additional teachers, professional development, pre-school education, increased technology, and class size reduction. It would be the first installment of an investment for Utah to regain its leadership in public education outcomes.

Utah cannot expect to continue to create high-paying jobs for most of the families in this state and maintain our economic advantage if we short-change our children’s education futures by short-changing the present.

Doug Macdonald, Economist
Kim Burningham, State Board of Education