‘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.