Utah education in 2012: a preview to the upcoming legislative session

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is an anomaly when it comes to education: We are among the top for how much of our state spending goes to education, but we're rock bottom in how much Utah spends per student.

How is that possible? A simple analogy should help:

School funding is like serving your family a pizza dinner. Cutting the pizza in thirds is like dividing Utah's tax revenue into thirds, and 33 cents of every tax dollar you spend goes to schools.

That sounds like a lot. But when you have the most kids on a block schedule like Utah does, the money doesn't go very far.

Lawmakers have to look at some tough things: Are they going to close rural schools? Are they going to use technology to make up the difference?

Wyoming is also a state that makes a big tax commitment to education, but they have fewer children to educate as well — a student in Wyoming gets $14,600 in funding compared to Utah's $6,400.

Back to the pizza analogy: The next thing you must do is cut slices into equal pieces, because by law, Utah has to give every child an equal education. While one slice would be fine for little children (urban schools), it wouldn't do much for bigger kids (rural schools).

That is another challenge for Utah: We have a lot of rural schools, and they eat through a lot of funding because they have higher transportation costs, and they have the same expenses as other schools but serve far fewer students.

What does this all mean as we head toward the 2012 Legislative Session? Lawmakers have to look at some tough things: Are they going to close rural schools? Are they going to use technology to make up the difference? Consider funding charter schools or maybe privatizing schools? These are all things on the agenda so that every child in Utah can get their share of the pie.

Coming up:

Issues surrounding teacher pay sparked protests in Ogden in 2011. Performance pay and teacher tenure will surely surface again at the legislature. Lawmakers want to explore ways to reward teachers who achieve high performance in their classrooms.

Legislators also want to have more options for firing or remediating ineffective teachers. For the first three years, Utah teachers are "at will" employees. But after that, they have protected "career status."

To illustrate the growth Utah schools are seeing, another analogy: Spring Mobile Ballpark in Salt Lake City holds about 12,000 people. That's the same number of new students that entered Utah Schools last year — and 12,000 more students are coming next year.

We'll look at the state of education in Utah in more detail on this week's Sunday Edition. It airs Jan. 15 at 9 a.m. on KSL Channel 5.

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Nadine Wimmer


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