Taxpayers need to know that the Utah Legislature spent a lot of money this year. The biggest beneficiary of Utah’s growing economy and the accompanying huge budget surpluses was Public Education. But you wouldn’t know it judging from some of the comments made by education advocates near the close of the session.
It’s always good for elected officials to hear from constituents, and when citizens show up en masse, it can send a powerful message. Such was the case on the final Monday before the legislature adjourned.
While the House and Senate were meeting that evening, school buses arrived carrying hundreds of educators and administrators. They crowded into the Capitol rotunda, insisting the legislature approve Governor Gary Herbert’s proposed 6.25% increase in the weighted pupil unit (WPU) – the basic funding unit for public education. Those present heard well-orchestrated speeches critical of the parsimonious Legislature. Chanting “six point two five, six point two five . . .” protestor shouts echoed through the Capitol.
When the legislature passed the final education budget before the conclusion of the 2015 legislative session, the budget included a 4% increase to the WPU.
Newly appointed State Superintendent Brad Smith was asked his opinion of those at the rally who didn’t appreciate the 4% increase the legislature provided. He said the ralliers reminded him of a child at Christmas complaining about not getting enough presents. The superintendent later apologized for his remarks, saying he was indulging himself “in the old rhetoric of criticism and blame.”
But did the Superintendent have a point? How much of an increase in education funding would be enough?
The 4% WPU increase is not even the whole story. School officials and union leaders know very well that the WPU is only a portion of total education funding, but they are slow to let their employees and members know. And the media? Don’t count on them to accurately report the education funding increases provided by the legislature.
When all funding increases are considered, Utah public schools will see a $374 million, or 9.4% increase in education spending over the current year. This provides a total of $4.371 billion in education funding for the school year ending in June of 2016.
Meanwhile, the “education establishment” (the UEA Teachers Union, School Boards Association, Superintendents Association, and State PTA) generally opposed legislation that would send tools and resources directly to students and teachers in the classroom. The establishment worked hard to preserve the “trickle down” funding model that keeps spending decisions in the hands of bureaucrats most removed from the classroom.
The education establishment opposed legislation to provide teachers and schools with more computers and digital learning software that would give students immediate feedback while doing homework.
The establishment opposed new programs to provide students with opportunities for computer coding, applied physics, and an online tool to assist students to be fully-informed as they make plans for college and careers.
The establishment opposed a measure that would have given students access to higher quality teachers through distance learning.
The establishment even opposed a measure sponsored by Democrat Representative Carol Moss, a former high school English teacher, to provide English teachers with the ability to give students immediate feedback with writing assignments, reading comprehension, and spelling and vocabulary improvement.
Finally, the establishment also opposed SB 235, the school turnaround legislation, which provides for the replacement of faculty and staff in the state’s lowest performing schools. SB 235, which ultimately passed, provides proven intervention strategies to ensure that students in the 3% of worst performing public schools finally get the quality education they deserve.
I could go on, but space is limited.
The education establishment pretends to support “local control” in an effort to deceive parents and teachers into supporting their organizations and initiatives. The dedicated and hard-working teachers who crowded into the Capitol during the legislative session have no idea how they were used as pawns to support funding an education model that runs contrary to the local control they cherish. Nevertheless, the education establishment continues to oppose proposals that would give local control of funding to schools.
Worst of all, the education establishment perpetuates the incorrect narrative that education doesn’t receive enough money from the legislature. Focusing wholly on the WPU gives an insufficient measure of school funding. Beyond the 4% increase in the WPU passed by the legislature and the total 9.4% increase in the education fund, public education is the beneficiary of over 30% of Utah’s total 2016 budget.