Education Budget: Meeting Today’s Demands

(cross-posted to Utah Legislature Watch)

Always a hot topic in the Utah Legislative Session, the budget discussion for education will once again address how to meet the demands of Utah’s changing demographics.

That is, if Utah’s legislators decide to recognize that Utah is not the same as it was a decade, and more, ago.
The Salt Lake Tribune has published an article on how students are doing in the state. On the surface, Utah looks good:

Utah students have a higher high school graduation rate than the nation on average; they have a higher average ACT score; and they meet or beat national averages on nationwide math, reading, writing and science tests.

But statistical examination of the breakdown paints a different picture:

When statewide results are broken down by race, Utah’s racial groups, including white students, sometimes perform below national averages for their peers, a Tribune analysis shows.

The article goes on to offer explanation to the “statistical paradox” of Utah’s student performance, especially given the fact that Utah has the lowest per pupil spending and highest class sizes. Added to this is Utah’s declining high school graduation rate.

According to Education Week reports, Utah had the highest high school graduation rate in the country in 2004. By 2006, Utah had slipped to 26th in the country.

Interviews with teachers and other officials offer further insights about the realities of teaching in Utah.

“As we fall farther behind in funding it should be no surprise to anyone that student achievement follows,” said State Superintendent Larry Shumway. “Our teachers are doing the best they can, but we aren’t providing the support for student learning that we ought to be providing.”

At the root of discussion is money. There are differing viewpoints on education spending.

[Jay Blain, a math teacher at Cottonwood High in Salt Lake City] Blain believes Utah’s relatively low per-pupil funding and large class sizes are the main reasons Utah students are falling behind.”Resources matter,” Blain said. “Tell me that it wouldn’t matter to have 30 kids in an algebra II class instead of 40.”

Will legislators agree?

[Sen. Howard Stephenson, co-chair of the Utah Legislature’s Education Interim Committee]
He said the way to improve Utah education is by attracting more quality teachers to classrooms. But to do that, he wants to boost teacher pay by putting schools on more efficient year-round schedules to save money.Putting more money toward education would “require higher taxes,” he said. In the past, Stephenson has said Utah should be a model for other states when it comes to eliminating waste in education spending.
[Rep. Greg Hughes, co-chair of the Education Interim Committee]
“If test scores were directly tied to funding then the District of Columbia would have the highest student test scores in America,” Hughes said, referring to the troubled Washington, D.C., school system, which spends the third-highest amount of money per student in the country.Though he said he’s not opposed to increasing education funding, Utah simply faces funding challenges other states don’t. Utah has the highest proportion of school-age children of any state in the nation, and about 65 percent of Utah land is federally-owned, meaning it can’t be taxed for schools, he said. “I don’t know how you ever overcome that,” Hughes said.

One thing for sure. Utah’s population is not the same as it was a decade ago. The demographics are changing and have been for quite some time. I’ts time to put education money into these changes. It’s not fair to impulsively and prematurely react by stating that taxes cannot be raised to fund education. While legislators are moving ahead with raising the taxes on unprepared food, a human necessity, they are balking at raising taxes to fund the education for our state’s children? Is not education also a human necessity? Where is the logic in not examining ALL possibilities, including raising taxes for this critcal need?

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