In the September issue of the Utah Taxpayer, I explained in detail why Utah’s 51st ranking in spending per student is a flawed metric. I wrote in the October issue about Utah’s ugly little secret of grotesque differences among Utah’s school districts in spending per student.  

In this issue I will share Utah’s ranking in education outcomes, what needs to happen to improve those outcomes, why teacher pay should be differentiated by market demand of subject area, and how to end the volatility in education revenue funding sources.

Utah’s Education Rankings

The 2019 American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) 23rd Annual Report Card on American Education gave Utah’s education system the 9th best grade among the 50 states. Utah public schools also rank 10th best among the states according to How States Compare as reported in the 2019 Best High Schools Rankings. Utah’s education system ranks 3rd best among the 50 states  according to U.S. News & World Report. The 2018 Education Rankings is based 50% on higher education factors such as graduation rates and tuition costs. The remaining 50% is based on Pre-K through 12, using factors such as test scores and high school graduation rates.

But Utahns cannot crow about these results. A top ten designation in U.S. education outcomes is like being the tallest building in Tooele. As with the rest of the nation, Utah’s results on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were stagnant or declining.  To make matters worse, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) recently revealed that 15 year old students in the United States continued to perform poorly when compared to their peers in other industrialized countries.

At the same time, four provinces in China outscored the rest of the world. Utah, and more broadly, the U.S. should be worried.

Why Other Nations Do Better in Education

 When I co-chaired the Education Committee of the National Conference of State Legislatures, I participated in an international study of the highest ranking countries on the PISA.  The results of that more than two year study are contained in No Time to Lose. 

The report stated, “We cannot ignore the reality that most state education systems are falling dangerously behind the world, leaving the United States overwhelmingly underprepared to succeed in the 21st century economy. After all of the national, state, and district reform efforts during the decade following No Child Left Behind, the U.S. was outperformed not only by a majority of the advanced industrial nations, but by a growing number of less-developed nations as well.”

The four elements of a world class educational system contained on page 10 of the report should be required  reading for anyone serious about reforming public education.

The Utah Legislature Must Ensure Marketplace Principles in Teacher Pay

As can be seen from the accompanying 50-state map from the World Population Review, Utah teacher salaries rank in the middle of the pack nationally.  However the map doesn’t show the extreme differences in salaries between rich and poor districts in Utah. 

In today’s economy, finding qualified teachers is difficult for the school districts more able to generate revenue but for districts of lesser means, it’s literally an impossible task.  Teachers in Utah’s richest districts are paid competitively well by national standards, and in some districts, average teacher total compensation exceeds nationwide standards. In the poor districts  no matter how high they increased their taxes they could never pay the $105,000 average teacher compensation in Park City School District. The Utah Legislature is solely to blame for these gross inequities and only the Legislature can fix it. 

For more than a decade the Utah Legislature has provided a pay differential for highly qualified math, science, and special education teachers of about $4,500 annually. This has helped to attract teachers where we experience critical shortages.  The Legislature needs to increase these pay differentials by at least $10,000 if we ever expect to have qualified teachers in these subject areas. While university engineering professors receive significantly more compensation than English or history professors, they couldn’t survive on the one-size-fits-all salary schedule of public schools. 

Ending School Funding Volatility

There have been rumblings about proposal to allow local school property taxes to automatically increase every year tied to an inflationary index.  This is a bad idea, especially since the legislature in 2018 already tied the statewide basic property tax rate to increase by the same percent as the value of the Weighted Pupil Index is increased each year which is usually around three or four percent. These automatic property tax hikes are unacceptable. 

Instead, the Legislature should  address the volatility of education funding which was made worse in the 1995 and 1996 legislative sessions when the statewide basic levy for public education was cut in half.  As a result education funding became more and more dependent on the volatile income tax and less reliant on the very stable property tax. Remedying this volatility can be done without a net increase in taxes.

While solving volatility is important, we must remember that combined state and local property tax revenues for education over the past quarter century, in spite of the 50% basic levy cut in the mid 90s, have actually increased 60% faster than student enrollments and inflation combined! In other words, Utah’s Truth-in-Taxation law has not restricted education funding.

In 1995 and 1996, the Legislature should have taken the more appropriate action of cutting the volatile income tax instead of the stable property tax.  Today our income tax would be much more competitive for economic expansion while our property tax would still rank around 35th lowest in the nation.

Hopefully the Utah Legislature  will act to require greater accountability in education outcomes, provide significantly more pay for teachers in shortage areas and end the volatility in education revenue funding sources.