Gifted with a surplus of funds due to a good economy, the Utah legislature hiked education spending in almost every category, providing pay increases for teachers, more teachers, more schools, more books, more computers — adding more than $450 million, raising the total state education check to $2.6 billion for elementary and secondary schools.
Much of the increases will be consumed by rising enrollments.
Through much of the 20th century Utah led the nation in educational attainment, but fell in state rankings as population growth accelerated especially through the 1980s and 1990s. The Salt Lake Tribune’s story sardonically noted:
The budget package increases per-pupil spending by more than 8 percent. But because other states may also boost school funds this year, fiscal analysts can’t yet say whether the new money will move Utah out of last place in the nation in money spent per student.
Classroom size reduction is excluded from the increases, because the legislature thinks earlier appropriations for that purpose were misused, according to the Associated Press story in the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune:
The extra $450 million will have little effect on reducing classroom size, however, because even as Utah hires more teachers, every year brings more students.
Lawmakers said they were withholding money for reducing classroom sizes until legislative auditors can investigate reports that districts misappropriated some of the $800 million dedicated for that purpose since 1992.
Every teacher and librarian should get a $2,500 pay raise and a $1,000, one-time “thank-you” bonus. Starting pay for teachers in Utah averages barely over $26,000 now.
Higher education funding will rise by $68.4 million, also, according to the Provo Daily Herald. About $8 million of that increase is targeted to Utah Valley State College (UVSC) in Orem, to raise it to university status. UVSC’s campus is just a few miles from Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, the nation’s largest private university and the flagship school of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).
Cash for schools
The funding proposal unveiled Friday includes $459.5 million in new funds for schools. Some highlights:
* $88 million to increase the weighted pupil unit 4 percent
* $68.7 million to give all teachers a $2,500 raise
* $50 million for classroom computers and software
* $50 million for school construction and renovation
* $33 million for a one-time $1,000 teacher bonus
* $26.9 million for charter schools and tuition vouchers
* $10 million for teacher materials and supplies
Commentary: Utah’s public education system carries a larger part of the burden of education than some other states, a reflection of the fact that the government was so long dominated by the LDS Church, and that state funding often reflects the priorities of the church shared by most of the population. Education is a high priority among Mormons. Budget hits over the past 25 years changed that relationship some.
Private schools have been too small to count for most of Utah history — Catholic high schools were few, but about the only parochial alternative to public schools.
The legislature boosted vouchers considerably, and new charter schools and other alternatives have sprung up as the fringe elements in Utah accumulated enough population to support such schools. Voucher-financed programs have not demonstrated dramatic improvements in education. This package from the legislature demonstrates the state’s confidence in public education, but with a slap at teachers and teacher organizations based on a national conservative and Republican consensus that educators are “too liberal.” Politics can taint even good news.
Pragmatically, much of Utah cannot be helped by private funding. San Juan County, in the southeast corner of the state, is so big that at one time it had two county seats so people would not have to make overnight trips for county business. School bus rides may still be more than 50 miles one way. Transportation costs chew up large parts of rural school district budgets.
Higher education diversifies to match the increasing diversity in the state’s population, religiously and racially, and economically. Mormons established the University of Utah (as the University of Deseret) in 1850, making it the oldest university west of the Missouri River. The U is still the flagship state institution, based in Salt Lake City, a major research university next to great skiing. Mormons also established Brigham Young University in Provo, and for years it dominated Utah’s #3 county. Funding to raise the state college near BYU to university status is probably more a reflection of the growth of the area, which at one time was the home to major computer software companies like WordPerfect and Novell, than competition to BYU. The major rivalry in almost all areas is between Utah and BYU.
Weber State University in Ogden remains a good all-around, regional university. Utah State University, the land-grant agricultural college, is in Logan, which has been outside the growth corridor for much of Utah’s development — although even Logan has a major air pollution problem now from increased population. Agriculture is a diminishing part of Utah’s economy by some measures.
All the state’s colleges and universities benefit from this increase in funding. Will it make up for a decade of restricted growth? Can it?
Education formerly was a base part of the budget. Now the Utah legislature treats it as a part of the budget that can be reduced in tough times, perhaps increased in good times. The increases are good news, but there are hints that the elected officials still regard education as expendible, and not as the foundation for a good economy, the way education was once enthroned. A budget surplus created congeniality in the legislative debates, missed last time around two years ago. “Education, teachers to reap a bonanza” said the headline in the Deseret News.
How long will the romance last this time?