Public education’s biggest problem is funding

By Sheryl Allen

Published: Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011

How refreshing. Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, has an idea to change teacher employment laws, and he is consulting with teachers. He either has good instincts, or he may have read the extensive research which validates that top down edicts don’t result in much improvement in education. Policymakers who collaborate with parents and professional educators do have the potential to improve education.

But Utah’s No. 1 education challenge unquestionably is funding. Utah’s revenues are slowly improving. Forbes Magazine has again named Utah as the best state for business. It’s time for the Legislature to reinvest in the future and the students if we are to maintain that status. The public should not be distracted by legislators’ unwillingness to face this real, pressing problem by efforts to blame collective bargaining or teacher accountability

Most of Utah’s public and charter school teachers have had no pay increases for three years. In fact, districts have reduced preparation and valuable teacher training days, so most teachers have had a salary decrease. This means that when new requirements are imposed — such as more testing, a core curriculum and civics education — inadequate teacher training is implemented. Class sizes have increased and supplies have diminished. Yet through this, teachers have valiantly served their students, and learning in our schools has continued uninterrupted, albeit with more students per teacher.

Combine this challenge with nearly 25,000 new students within the last three years. Student growth has not always been funded, which means school districts have had to pull from other limited budgets to provide these students with the supplies and teachers they need.

Utah could and should do better for our public and charter schools and our universities and colleges. The Utah Foundation in June 2011 once again reported that Utah’s funding effort, as measured by the proportion of Utah incomes dedicated to funding K-12 public education, has fallen significantly.

Until the late 1990s, Utah spent a high proportion of personal income on public and higher education, but that effort has diminished significantly in the last decade. The problem isn’t just the recession but also changes in state tax policy.

It bears repeating that Utah’s per-pupil spending for public education is last in the nation and has been since 1988. In fact, Utah spends only 58 percent of the national average per pupil.

Most instructors and professors in higher education have also had their salaries frozen for three years. Much of Utah’s economic development now and in the future depends on an educated workforce with more of that workforce having advanced degrees. Since 2009, total funding for higher education has decreased nearly 2 percent, according to the Legislature’s appropriations summary, while student enrollment has increased. It’s time to recognize the efforts of staff and faculties by improving both public and higher education funding.

All of these challenges have added to the problem that Osmond has recognized when he reported to a legislative committee in November that teacher morale is low.

So here’s hoping Osmond continues to consult with educators and truly listens and incorporates their recommendations into any bill that he proposes. And while you’re at it, Osmond, please encourage your colleagues to also seek input prior to policy proposals.

In particular, it would be beneficial for Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, to initiate regular consultation with educators, those who are actually on the front line of education, before he introduces his usual litany of education bills. And don’t forget that the major problem in public and higher education really is inadequate funding.

Sheryl Allen is a member of the executive committees of Alliance for a Better UTAH and Utahns for Public Schools.

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