By most accounts, public education fared well coming out of this year’s legislative session, considering the work done with the revenues available. Approximately 57 percent of new money available was allocated to public education.
Here are some budget highlights from House Bill 2, which provides new public education funding:
- A 4 percent increase on the WPU ($116 million);
- Fully funding of student growth ($64 million);
- Ongoing funding for teacher supply money reimbursement ($5 million);
- Payment for educator licensing fees ($2.6 million ongoing);
- Ongoing funding for the Regional Service Centers ($2 million dollars); and
- Funding for a Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind building in Utah County ($10.5 million).
The education budget process started late in the fall of 2016 with various education groups making funding proposals to the Governor. The UEA’s proposal called for a 7.5% increase in the Weighted Pupil Unit (WPU), 2.5 percent just to remain even and 5 percent to make progress in public education funding. This request, while aggressive, recognized that current the Utah tax system is not meeting the needs of Utah’s public schools and students and that additional sources of new revenue are needed. In his proposed budget released in December 2016, Governor Gary Herbert called for a 4 percent WPU increase.
During early weeks of the session, the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee met and made an original proposal for a 3 percent increase on the WPU. The 4 percent WPU increase was the result of tremendous effort by the legislators involved in the process and involvement by the UEA, local governance and staff, and educators contacting their legislators.
No new long-term revenues for education funding were passed this session despite a great deal of talk about education funding prompted by the proposed Our School Now ballot initiative. While many new funding options were discussed, only two actually made it to a vote. A proposal to raise income taxes on high-income earners (Senate Bill 141 by Senator Jim Dabakis) failed in the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee.
Senate Bill 255 by Senator Howard Stephenson would have generated about $20 million per year over five years by freezing the basic property tax rate. This proposal was later combined with Senate Bill 80 that would use the new money to equalize property tax funding. SB255 passed the Senate, but time ran out on the last day before the newly combined bill could be considered in the House.
With no major new funding, there is still work to be done to find a solution to the chronic underfunding of Utah’s public schools. Even Governor Herbert acknowledged this fact when he said that the Our Schools Now initiative needs to go forward because it is causing people to talk about the school funding issue.