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Making the Grade

After years of fighting over education spending, lawmakers and educators have come up with a winning formula—for now.



On the penultimate day of the 2020 legislative session, a who's-who lineup of Utah's government and education leaders linked arms to demonstrate their mutual commitment to a delicate bargain struck over education funding.

Pending voter approval, the state would abandon a constitutional requirement that all income tax revenue be spent on schooling—considered sacrosanct by many educators. In return, lawmakers were poised to approve a 6% ($200+ million) boost to per-student funding and create a new budgeting process that, in theory, guarantees ever-increasing investment in public education during both good times and bad.

"I believe this is the proverbial win-win-win," then-Gov. Gary Herbert said at the time.

Two days later, the bad times arrived.

Sydnee Dickson, Utah State Superintendent of Public Instruction - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Sydnee Dickson, Utah State Superintendent of Public Instruction

"Last year, we had a phenomenal year," state Superintendent Sydnee Dickson said during a recent interview. "The high of highs on the last day of the session, and then 11 o'clock the very next day I was standing by the governor saying schools were going to shutter."

As Utahns retreated into their homes for months of pandemic-imposed isolation, lawmakers went to work dismantling their just-approved state budget. Schools were spared from outright cuts, but the much-lauded 6% boost was trimmed down to 1.8% and the lion's share of new appropriations were placed on indefinite hold.

The impending constitutional amendment—Amendment G—disappeared into the background of a year dominated by health crises and political upheaval. But voters ultimately signed off on the change, giving lawmakers access to the income tax revenue they craved, and assurances were made to educators that the promise of significant, reliable funding increases for public education would still arrive, albeit delayed.

The question of whether, and to what degree, lawmakers would put our money where their mouths were was answered in January. In a roughly $400 million budget adjustment, SB1, they paid for school enrollment growth and inflation—as now required by law—but then kept going, adding $1,500 pandemic bonuses for teachers statewide and a 6% boost to per-student spending to what is typically a bare-bones rough draft of the year's accounts.

Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, - R-South Jordan - COURTESY PHOTO
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  • Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan

"This is unlike any public-education base budget bill that we've seen before," Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, said while presenting the bill on the Senate floor. "It's larger than the typical base budget bill, and this honors commitments that we made with our voters in November 2020."

By and large, the reaction from members of the education community has been a combination of surprise, relief and encouragement. The threat of a constitutional amendment had been a source of dread for years, but in interviews with teachers, school administrators and education advocates, most described feeling assuaged by the inaugural run of the new process.

"Other states have had draconian cuts in education funding," said McKay Jensen, past president of the Utah School Superintendents Association. "To be held harmless in a COVID-downturn year of great anxiety, to have commitments made to us and commitments fulfilled—this is not a bad year, this is not a flat year. Our legislative leaders deserve a lot of credit."

And by quickly dealing with what is typically an elephant in the budget, lawmakers added yet another quirk to an already atypical legislative session. Much of state government remains virtual or socially distanced, and without the flashpoint of a fight over per-student spending, some in the education community say their respective organizations have new bandwidth to consider—and disagree on—outlying pieces of school-related legislation.

But if 2021 demonstrates that the state's new school funding plan can work, the question becomes whether it will continue to work in the future.

State law now sets a minimum school funding floor that increases to match inflationary costs, but those rules can be altered or abandoned by a simple majority vote. And it is at the discretion of lawmakers to pass additional funding bumps at the start of session (as they did this year), at the end of session (as they traditionally do), or to not appropriate extra funding at all (as Amendment G gives them new license to do).

McKay Jensen, past president of the Utah School Superintendents Association - COURTESY PHOTO
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  • McKay Jensen, past president of the Utah School Superintendents Association

"That will be the work every year, to watch that bill and watch those statutory requirements and make sure we keep them, because politics change," Jensen said. "People are supportive of us right now, but there are cracks."

Fraught Formulas
When it comes to the education budget, there are a few helpful rules of thumb. First, the bulk of state funding is distributed to schools based on enrollment, using an esoteric metric called the Weighted Pupil Unit, or WPU, which is more-or-less a per-student dollar figure.

Second, every 1% increase to the WPU costs the state roughly $35 million. And third, the cost of running schools—which really is to say, paying educators—increases every year to the tune of a 2% WPU increase.

That means that from the perspective of your local school district, a 3% increase to per-student spending means money for raises and/or new programs, a 2% increase means the district breaks even, and a 1% increase puts the district in the red looking at either cuts or property tax hikes to fill the gap.

And while inflationary pressures are a reality for all areas of government, the scope and size of the public education system makes those economic winds particularly hard-felt and uniquely public-facing. At the Legislature, it's common to hear complaints that educators "always want more" because, in effect, they do.

"With growth and inflation, we would basically have to ask [for money] to get to zero every year," Jensen said. "Education financing is just so stinking complicated."

The grand "win-win-win" bargain of 2020 is meant to address that tension. In return for getting on board with Amendment G, schools will see their passive cost increases built into the next year's base budget, clearing the first funding hurdle so requests for new funding are, in fact, new.

Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association - COURTESY PHOTO
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  • Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association

"Being able to have that from the start is fantastic," said Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association. "It's the way it should be."

But the deal goes one step further on that front. Lawmakers wanted access to the income tax because, in recent years, it has significantly outperformed the state sales tax. That meant a recurring theme of mountains in the education fund and only molehills in the general fund—which is responsible for funding essentially everything but public schools.

In exchange for blowing a hole in the income tax pot wide enough for a double-tracked Frontrunner train to roll through, a new reserve account for education was created to tuck extra funds away in times of plenty so that if and when the economy plummets, money for minimum cost adjustments will continue to be available.

"In times of uncertainty, at least our schools would have growth and inflation," Matthews said.

By including a 6% WPU increase in this year's base budget, lawmakers signaled that the required funding is a floor, not a ceiling. Hence, the collective sigh of relief from educators.

"I think it set the tone for a good session to be able to talk about collaboration and moving forward," Matthews said, "with a few exceptions."

The friendly negotiations leading into this year's legislative session came close to falling apart in December, when news broke that teachers would be excluded from the planned $1,500 hazard pay bonuses if their school district failed to offer in-person learning.

That provision overtly targeted Salt Lake City School District—the only one in the state utilizing an all-online format—and was eventually walked back. But separate, punitive legislation was introduced once the Legislature convened to maintain a sword over the district's head while it shifted to a hybrid format earlier this month.

Dickson said those and other efforts prompted discussions about the extent and limits of local district control. She said statewide guidelines related to the pandemic were developed by the State Board of Education, and Utah's districts and charter schools considered those policies in crafting their individual approaches to the school year.

"All of our teachers worked hard," she said. "It doesn't matter the setting they were in."

Fillmore, the Senate sponsor of the education budget, said he was pleased that the debate over teacher stipends was resolved.

"Every district in the state qualifies for this bonus for their teachers, and I'm grateful for that," Fillmore said. "And I'm especially glad the students in Salt Lake City get to go to school."

Give and Take
Last week, updated revenue numbers for the state showed roughly $1.5 billion in available funding for appropriations. But nearly all of that figure is "one-time" money, suited for short-term programs and purchases rather than ongoing budgets.

Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton - COURTESY PHOTO
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  • Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton

Sen. Jerry Stevenson—R-Layton, and the Senate's budget chairman—said legislators' requests for funding far exceed the available revenue. And that gap is exacerbated by the decision to fund education at the top of the session.

"There's going to have to be some deep thought in putting a [final] budget together," he said.

Stevenson said leaving education until the end of the budget process likely would have resulted in less funding for the WPU than the 6% bump approved in January. The gains for schools put pressure on the remaining areas of state spending, he said, while taking some of the biggest funding questions off of lawmakers' plates.

"If you're being attacked by a mob, one less in the mob is a lot easier," he said.

Fillmore said he expects future base budgets to follow suit by going beyond the minimum funding increases required by law. That may not mean the full boost to the WPU will be settled at the start of each legislative session, he said, but some portion of that year's new investments are likely to be addressed quickly.

"The voters approved Amendment G knowing that would mean education would be funded more heavily, right up front," he said.

Holladay Democrat Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, a former teacher, opposed the constitutional amendment. She said she's pleased with this year's funding increase for schools but remains concerned about the long-term ramifications of expanding the uses of income-tax revenue.

"Only time will tell," she said. "But [legislative leaders] stepped up and made a commitment and did what they said."

Amendment G added services for children and the disabled to be funded by the income tax, but the true intent and impact is to allow money to move back and forth between the education and general funds.

Moss said the true test of the new growth-first system will be when other important programs are competing with education for a slice of income-tax revenue.

"How is it going to play out when they start getting money from the same source?" she said. "We haven't seen how that balance is going to work."

And Jensen, of the superintendents' association, said the good feelings around this year's numbers have not fully supplanted the apprehension over amending the constitution.

"We're conscious of playing in the same sandbox as public safety and social services," he said.

All of those unknown variables are compounded by the coronavirus, which upended the public education system in the spring of 2020 in myriad ways.

Utah has experienced a chronic shortage of teachers—the state's last-in-the-nation funding levels translate to comparatively large class sizes and low salaries—but some areas started the new school year with excess teachers after personnel delayed retirement and enrollment dipped.

"We had a number of students just disappear altogether," said Granite School District spokesman Ben Horsley. "They never showed up in another district, they just vanished."

Many if not most of those students—and thousands like them statewide—are expected to return to school as the pandemic subsides and social restrictions ease. But they may encounter an exhausted faculty, straining the state's already-high rate of turnover that sees four out of 10 new teachers quit the profession within five years.

"We could find ourselves deep in the throes of the teacher shortage again," Horsley said.

Other district representatives, who declined to speak on the record, said the rosy talk of new funding ignores the lingering pain of 2020, when state budget reductions left some districts to trim costs or dip into reserves to balance their books. Rather than a 6% increase from the Legislature this year, they say, the reality is a restoration of lost funds, plus some extra for inflation and growth.

"It's really money they already gave us, but then pulled back," one educator said.

Yándary Chatwin, spokeswoman for the Salt Lake City School District, said the district will be closer to breaking even this year than seeing a significant funding increase. But she added that administrators are pleased with the work of legislative leaders in supporting education during a challenging budget year.

"After seeing how the numbers have turned out, it's looking promising, and we're hopeful that public education will continue to be as much of a priority as the Legislature has made it this year," she said.

Jensen acknowledged that there are differing levels of enthusiasm regarding the outcome of the Amendment G vote. But he noted that in a time of significant challenges, growth and inflation were funded and new investments are being made.

"There are people in our group who actually think this year was another zero year," he said. "That's not how my household works. If I didn't get the raise last year, and I get it this year, I don't tell my employer they owe me last year's money, too."

Breaking Up the Band
With the question of WPU funding settled, the different branches of Utah's education family tree have turned their attentions to various proposals bouncing around the state Capitol.

Jensen said that's had the effect of giving oxygen to areas of internal disagreement, like a failed resolution urging schools to reconsider the use of Native American mascot or a controversial proposal to ban transgender girls from participating in school sports.

"There's a big change actually," he said. "I think that puts a little more pressure on some of these divisive or philosophical bills."

Jensen said those internal discussions do not always result in public support or opposition to a particular bill. But as to the transgender athlete bill, he said there is broad concern about the potential for litigation.

"It seems like there's a lawsuit on both sides," he said. "In keeping the state law, if it passes, we'll be open to the federal courts. If not, we're open to the state courts."

Matthews said most of the UEA's legislative requests were addressed in SB1's base budget. In the remaining days of the session, she said the union is lobbying for expanded sick leave.

"Regardless of how fast the vaccines are coming out, we don't want teachers going to school sick or having to face loss of pay for the absences related to COVID," she said.

State Superintendent Dickson said the Board of Education is seeking to restore some of the budget items cut in 2020. The board is also requesting funding to expand broadband access, bolster programs for at-risk students and early learning, and to increase the number of schools offering optional full-day kindergarten.

"We have data that shows that makes a difference," Dickson said. "And we're one of a very few states that doesn't ensure every student has that opportunity for extended-day kindergarten."

The Board of Education also took the relatively rare step of formally opposing a bill last week, voting against SB175, which would loosen the rules around special-education spending. The bill comes on the heels of a controversy-prone but politically well-connected charter school having its wrists slapped, and it sidesteps recent revisions to the state's special-education policies.

"The [school] board feels like they undertook this very long, data-driven and stakeholder-feedback-driven process to get to where we're at," said deputy state superintendent Angie Stallings, "and this bill would undo some of those things."

And Utah PTA President Laney Benedict said she is watching the progress of SB134, which deals with regulations around electronic cigarettes.

"As Utah PTA, we advocate for the whole child," she said. "Not just the education piece, not just the health piece, not just the safety. We advocate for all of those things."

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton - COURTESY PHOTO
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  • Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton

Outside of the education category, legislative leaders are looking to fund transportation and utility improvements, as well as offer relief to taxpayers. Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said that while ongoing revenue is limited, the state is fortunate to be in as healthy a position as it is.

"If you had told me last March when we shut the economy down—when we sent people home and shut down businesses—that this session we'd be doing a tax cut, we'd be funding education and we'd be funding infrastructure, I probably wouldn't have believed you," he said.

Nearly every person contacted for this article commented on a spirit of collaboration that currently exists around public education, and a cooling of the perceived hostilities between districts and charter schools, between school administrators and parents' organizations, and between lawmakers and the teachers' unions.

"We all learned to trust each other a little bit more in the process of going through Amendment G," Fillmore said. "I think that probably surprised a lot of us."

Those tensions have cooled before, but they tend to rekindle. New leaders are elected, new controversies present themselves and all the while more and more children pack into the lowest-funded schools in the nation. A tenuous peace seems to be in place, but memories can be short on Capitol Hill.

"Our relationship seems healthy right now, and if nothing else that's what we can celebrate," Jensen said. "We still have a lot to talk about, but at least we're having good conversations."