‘Bumper sticker’ education policy vs. serious solutions

The U.S. Census Bureau recently released its most recent report on K-12 public education spending, including data for the 2008-09 school year. I’ll give you a moment to be amazed at how slow the federal government is … OK, moment over. As usual, the report found that Utah’s per-pupil education spending is the lowest of all the states ($6,356).

Many education advocates on the left in Utah often lament the fact that we spend less per pupil than other states, and significantly less per pupil than the national average. Their proposed “solution” to this perceived problem is to “support your public schools,” by which they mean “give public schools more money.” Presumably, the goal is to bring Utah’s per-pupil education spending out of the cellar, and perhaps up to or near the national average, if not higher. But is this a serious solution to Utah’s perceived education funding problem? The answer is no.

To illustrate, what would it cost taxpayers to bring Utah’s per-pupil spending up just 10 spots to 40th in the nation ($8,718), where Colorado is now? That would require $2,362 more per student, which would have to come either from state sources (state income taxes, almost all of which go to K-12 public education), local sources (school district property taxes), or the federal government. According to the Census report, on a per-pupil basis the state, local and federal sources of public education revenues break down as follows: state – $4,177, local – $2,771, federal – $1,005. FYI, these don’t add up to $6,356 because some of this revenue paid for school construction, which isn’t included in the $6,356 figure.

If the state were to foot this entire bill, it would have to increase state income taxes by almost 60 percent. Local school districts, on the other hand, would have to hike their portion of Utahns’ property tax bill by 85 percent. The federal government … well, let’s just all agree that with more than $14 trillion in debt the federal government is not going to double (and then some) its funding commitment to Utah’s public schools. If the state and school districts upped taxes by an equal proportion, state income taxes and school district property taxes would both have to go up by over a third. Such dramatic tax increases would be terrible public policy and would wreak havoc on family budgets, job creation, and the economy as a whole … not to mention that no credible politician would come within a mile of such a proposal.

And that is just to go from 50th place to 40th place! Want Utah to jump to 30th place ($9,657) to be on par with California? It will cost you a 79 percent state income tax hike, a 119 percent school district property tax increase, or boosting both by about 50 percent. And, just for fun, what about raising Utah’s per pupil spending to the national average of $10,499, which would be good for 22nd out of the 50 states? State income taxes would have to about double, school district property taxes would have to jump by 150 percent, or both would have to increase by roughly 60 percent.

Any way you slice it, the tax increases necessary to “solve” Utah’s perceived education funding problem are both practical and political non-starters. That, my friends, is what is known in the policy world as an “unserious solution” … though “support your public schools” does make a nice bumper sticker.

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  • Anonymous

    No one seems interested in addressing the real problem, which is that Utah has a totally flawed tax structure when it comes to education funding. The legislature made policy changes in the last few years that eroded earmarking of funding for education, yet seems bent on earmarking for future roads (even overriding a Gov. Herbert veto). While the percentage of the state budget going to K-12 education has declined over the past dozen or so years, the percentage going to roads has nearly doubled. Seems to me like a question of priorities, not ability.

    • Derek H Monson


      The data seem to go against your position that Utah doesn’t prioritize public education spending.

      According to the most recent data from the Census Bureau, Utah was in the top 10 states for the percent of state and local spending that goes to public education, at 33.6% (http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700048237/Utah-10th-for-percentage-of-budget-spent-on-education.html).  The top state, at 36.7%, was Vermont.  Certainly, there’s room for Utah to grow, but as far as percent of government spending is an accurate measure of priorities, the data would suggest that state and local government in Utah deem public education to a be a pretty high priority.

      Similarly, if you look through the Legislative Appropriations Summaries (http://le.utah.gov/asp/lfa/lfareports.asp?src=LFAAS), you’ll find that the percent of state funds (not including funding sources that the state doesn’t fully control, like federal funds) spent on public education has gone steadily up since 2003, from 48.4% in 2003 to 51.4% in 2010.  Again, inasmuch as proportion of state spending of state funds accurately depicts priorities, public education is a higher priority today than it used to be.

      Rather than being a question of priority, Utah’s public education finance situation is a primarily a function of its social demographics (larger families than most other states) combined with political realities (significant tax increases are unpopular).  A serious solution must first accept and address those realities.

      • Anonymous

        Derek, According to the Utah Foundation, prior to the mid-90s, Utah consistently ranked in the top 10 in the amount of personal income going to public education. Because of legislative changes to tax policy, we now rank #38. While we still have more children per taxpayer than any other state, the Utah Foundation’s conclusion was that it can no longer be said we are trying the best we can to fund those students’ education.

        In other words, tax cuts and other spending options took a back seat to education. So, I still maintain it is a question of priorities.

        • Derek H Monson

          While I have a lot of respect for the work that the Utah Foundation does, I also question some of the conclusions that they make.  For one, as an organizational decision, over the years the Utah Foundation has regularly accepted money from the state to fund their work, and from the Utah State Office of Education in particular.

          So while I have no dispute with the data they report, I can’t simply accept their conclusion on the effort that Utah is putting into funding public schools at face value.  What are they supposed to say, that Utah is adequately funding public education and they don’t need to give more money to one of their significant sources of revenue?  Not likely.

          The Utah Foundation does some good work, but when you choose to accept funding from the government education agencies, any conclusion you make about education funding is questionable.

          • Anonymous

            When you don’t like the data, attack the messenger. Nice.

          • Derek H Monson

            Actually, Harvey, I have no problem with the data, just like I said.  The data is what it is…my concern with the Utah Foundation report is not the data. 

            My questioning of the credibility of the Utah Foundation’s conclusion is not really an “attack” on the messenger.  Rather, it is a reasonable concern about the conflict of interest that the Utah Foundation has created for itself on the issue of public education finance.  Over the years, they have chosen to accept public funds from the Utah State Office of Education to do research on education issues – that’s just a plain statement of fact, not an “attack” of any sort. 

            I think most reasonable people would understand that this organizational decision on the part of the Utah Foundation creates a conflict of interest for them when it comes to drawing conclusions on the efforts of the state to fund the public education system, which includes the Utah State Office of Education.  What they are doing, in part, is drawing conclusions on the willingness of the state to fund an office that has been a source of revenue for them.

            In that context, it is completely reasonable and logical, and not an “attack,” to be skeptical when the Utah Foundation concludes that the state could put more effort into funding public education.  By the way, it doesn’t mean that they’re wrong.  It simply means that they are not the most credible spokesman on the issue.  They are concluding what you’d expect them to conclude given the circumstances.  I think that most fair-minded people with knowledge of the facts would have similar concerns about the credibility of the Utah Foundation’s conclusion (though, like you, they might in the end agree with that conclusion).

  • Anonymous

    So we can’t get to 40th, so we throw up our hands and do nothing?  What we should look at is some of the excellent work and research by the Utah Foundation on the erosion of effort.  This is also contained in the same Census Bureau data.  Utah, not too long ago was in the top ten in the amount per $1000 of personal income in education spending.  Now, according to the Census Bureau, we are 38th.  A lot of this is due to the changes in the tax structure, the last of which was the change to the single rate right before the economic downturn.  This took appoximately $200 million out of pubic education. 

    Organizations such as the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce are recognizing the damage that is being done to our economic future by the underfunding of our education systems, both public and higher ed.  Businesses are locating based upon a educaated human resource.  Utah is losing ground is this area and it must be addressed now!

    • Derek H Monson


      If you read my post carefully, you’ll find that nowhere do I say or imply that Utah should “throw up our hands and do nothing”.  Rather, I’m simply pointing out that those who complain the loudest about Utah’s education spending rankings have no serious solution to that problem.  In other words, their proposed “solution” has no hope of actually solving the problem that they claim to be so concerned about.

      You’re tax structure argument is another example of such a non-serious solution.  If “a lot” of Utah’s fall from the top 10 to 38th in public education spending per $1000 personal income was due to tax
      structure changes like the single-rate income tax, then it would be reasonable to conclude that moving Utah back to its old tax structure should significantly boost Utah’s standing in this ranking, right?

      Yet, if the state had spent an extra $200 million on public schools in 2009, as you claim they could have under the old tax structure, Utah’s rank on this education-spending measure would have only jumped from 38th to 34th (from $38.07 to $40.25 per $1000 personal income, based on the data available in the Census report).  That’s not exactly a huge jump, and not even close to getting Utah into the top 10.

      Getting Utah into the top 10 for education spending per $1000 personal income would cost about $1,410 per student, or roughly $774 million based on the data in the Census report.  Even under the old tax structure, with the extra $200 million you claim it would produce, that’s an income tax increase of about 25%, or a school-district property tax increase of about 38%.  Again, such a significant tax hike would not only be bad policy but would be politically impossible to boot.

      Additionally, the extra $200 million would not have changed Utah’s per-pupil spending ranking.  It would have been about $6,720, still short of next-to-last place (Idaho) by about $372 per student, or roughly another $200 million.

      Offering serious policy solutions requires that you actually solve the problem that you claim exists.  Those who argue the loudest that Utah’s education spending rankings are a problem aren’t doing that.

      • Anonymous

        Derek, Jotab points out only one tax policy change (flat tax) that cut public education funding. There have been many others over the past 15 or so years. Utahns for Public Schools put out a series of reports last year highlighing four changes (income tax cuts for the wealthy, property tax rate reductions, corporate sales tax exemptions and diverting income tax to higher ed) that alone cost Utah public schools between $1 and $1.5 billion (yes, that’s billion, with a “B”) per year. In other words, if these changes had not been made, Utah would have $1.5 billion more available to fund schools–which would have kept us in the top 10 for effort.

        • Derek H Monson

          On their face, the Utahns for Public Schools reports aren’t really that helpful for a serious discussion of education funding policy in Utah because they ignore basic policy and political realities.  For the most part, they are more hypothetical guesses at what could be if we simply imagined political and policy reality to be as we want it, rather than what it actually is.  The reports really just back up the point of my blog post: that the left’s policy “solutions” are not serious solutions at all, but are “bumper-sticker” policies.  I’ll take them one by one.

          Diverting Income Tax to Higher Ed (Report I) – This policy change was a constitutional amendment, meaning it passed by a 2/3 vote of both houses of the Utah Legislature AND a majority of the voting public backed it in a general election.  Overturning that would require jumping those same high political hurdles, and would amount to the legislature basically saying that both they and the public were wrong to support the idea in the first place.  Combine that with the opposition this amendment would draw from the higher education system, and I would say that the political viability of this idea is questionable, if not completely unrealistic.

          Corporate Sales and Property Tax Reductions (Report II) – In both cases, what they’re advocating for amounts to a tax increase (either eliminating sales tax exemptions or raising property taxes).  Both of those policies would have as many negative social and economic impacts on the state there would be benefits for public schools (tax increases getting passed onto consumers, decreased economic activity and fewer jobs produced, etc.).  The exception to this, in my opinion, would be doing away with corporate property tax incentive packages that businesses sometimes get.  But, ironically, the school districts themselves agree to these special property tax deals.  IOW, the public school system is in part inflicting this aspect of the funding problem on itself!

          Property Tax Rate Reductions (Report III) – Again, the possible benefits for public schools are offset by the negative economic and social impacts of a general property tax increase.  Further, EVERYONE hates property taxes, so this idea is politically D.O.A.  So this really doesn’t have much value as a serious policy idea.

          Income Tax Reform (Report IV) – Just like report III, this report is basically calling for a tax increase by arguing that public schools would be better off under the old income tax system, in which income taxes were higher.  Just like sales and property tax increases, there will be similar negative economic and social impacts from raising income taxes, and the politics of tax increases make this idea unrealistic politically.

          In sum, three of the four positive policy “changes” implied by the Utahns for Public Schools’ reports are tax hikes, which are bad economic policies and are politically unrealistic.  The fourth policy change (repealing the constitutional change), is at best
          politically questionable, and politically impossible at worst.  These reports reinforce the point of my blog post: the policy “solutions” of the left are not serious policy ideas, though they may make good sound bytes.

  • Anonymous

    Derek, I resent your implication that those who advocate for additional public education funding are only “on the left”. I do not see the education of our children as a right or left issue. I am and active, lifelong republican, but feel Utah could and should be doing more to provide resources toward improving education outcomes–including reducing class sizes.

    • Derek H Monson


      I did not imply that those who advocate for more public school funding are all on the left.  I simply targeted my blog post to the “give schools more money” position of education advocates on the left.  In other words, I wanted to talk about how un-serious the left’s policy ideas are on public education, but that doesn’t imply that I think people on the left are the only ones who want more money in public schools. 

      Everyone wants more money in public schools, but we have to be serious about how that can go in a state with large families, high public school participation, and an aversion to tax increases.  If we don’t accept the policy and political realities that we face, we’ll never arrive at any substantive solutions to education funding issues, regardless of our good intentions and desires.

  • 358ivan

    Amen. There are many ways Utah could be more efficient with available resources. Read what New Zealand did in 1984. See Imprimis speech by Maurice McTigue Feb 2004. (New Zealand is roughly the size of Utah).

  • Olettajoy

    Good information.  Thank you very much.  I volunteer in a K-12 Salt Lake School.There is an army of us.  I believe the real solution to the schools is volunteers.  I am there 4 afternoons a week for 2-2 hours. I don’t miss the time at all, since I am retired and have limited stand-up-ability.  Tutoring is a good sit-down job, and I am being useful.  Spread the word. Also what would help would be vouchers.  Teachers are afraid of them, but they would help.   

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