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SALT LAKE CITY — Leaders of the Alliance for a Better Utah announced Monday they intend to file a lawsuit against the state to force the Utah Legislature to increase funding for public schools.
The political lobbyist group points to Utah's rankings as having the lowest per-pupil spending amount in the country, as well as cuts in K-12 education dollars leading up to and during the Great Recession. And those inadequate funding levels have contributed to academic underperformance, according to Josh Kanter, founder and board president of the alliance.
"We think the Legislature is the best way to get this done, but they seem to be shirking their responsibility to do it," Kanter said. "The court system, it's a less-than-ideal place to have to go, but we believe that the conversation's been going on for too long. The Legislature gives us too much lip service. The public has demanded it multiple times, poll after poll."
Kanter said the alliance is "fairly far along" in the process of finding a firm to represent the group, but it's unclear when it plans to file a complaint.
"I would say we're committed to it," he said. "We think we have a valid and viable claim."
Utah is one of a small handful of states that hasn't yet faced litigation over public education funding. But legislative leaders point to efforts in recent years to improve the education budget as evidence that students take a high priority in the state budget.
Last year, the Legislature implemented a funding increase of $512 million for public and higher education, including a $75 million property tax increase that improved funding equity among school districts. Lawmakers also approved a 4 percent increase — more than $100 million — to the weighted pupil unit, the state's distribution formula for equalized school funding.
Among other funding initiatives this year, legislators are considering a measure to improve funding equity between district and charter schools, an alteration that would bring $36 million for charters.
House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said the possibility of a lawsuit over education funding won't have an impact this session.
"It's not. I think we take education funding very seriously as we always have," Hughes said, pointing to last year's legislation that increased property tax revenues. "I think that was a major accomplishment, a major achievement, that really shows the commitment to adequately fund education."
The speaker said he is proud of the budgeting process in the Legislature, "and I think that you will not find a lawmaker who doesn't feel the urgency and the importance of public education and adequate funding."
He said "anybody with a filing fee can make any argument they'd like. To the degree that it flies or not, I'm a lawmaker. I'm not a judge."
Still, Utah's education dollars remain below what they were in 2008, prior to the recession, Kanter said. Lobbyists also disagree with current budget allocations that divert 15 percent of the education fund — about $564 million — away from K-12 schools and into Utah's colleges and universities.
Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, is sponsoring a resolution this year that calls on lawmakers to return that money to K-12 schools.
Education First and Prosperity 2020 have echoed the call for a significant influx of cash into the education fund. Late last month, the education advocates in Utah's business community began asking legislators to consider asking voters on the November ballot whether they'd support a $519 million income tax increase.
Depending on the response from voters, lawmakers would decide next year whether to enact a tax increase. And the proposal from business leaders would put the entire sum into K-12 schools, focusing on early childhood education, graduation rates and other key indicators.
"We know this is bold. But we think we'd better step up," said Education First co-chairman Nolan Karras.
Richard Kendell, co-chairman of Education First, said other states, including South Carolina, Washington and Kansas, have faced lawsuits resulting in the courts mandating increases to state education funding. But it's unclear whether the same would result for Utah.
"It's a real fight. Whether this gets traction in Utah, I don't know. But we're taking a different tack. We're not taking the court tack," Kendell said. "We're saying, 'Let's raise the level of conversation and see what people say.'"
Kanter said the alliance isn't defining what an "adequate" funding amount for schools is, and the lawsuit won't necessarily advocate for a tax increase. But he said he's hopeful a solution will arise between the courts, the Legislature and other groups, especially in light of projections showing Utah will have 1 million K-12 students by 2050.
"I don't know what the right answer is. Prerecession levels, I would argue, is not enough because prerecession levels were already a dramatic downward spiral from the mid-1990s," he said. "We'd have to consider whatever the Legislature does, and, in fact, we're perfectly happy to consider whatever they do.
"The goal is clearly to see how we can best get to what some group of experts — and that's not us alone — can decide is adequate funding for our education system, and making sure that our kids are at the top of the nation, not the bottom," he said.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche