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Curious how Utah’s ed budget is put together? Here’s a quick guide

First grade students at Hawthorne Elementary sit on the floor and listen to their teacher read a book on the first day of school on Aug. 22, 2023.
Martha Harris
First grade students at Hawthorne Elementary sit on the floor and listen to their teacher read a book on the first day of school on Aug. 22, 2023.

Utah’s 2024 legislative session kicks off Jan. 16, and during the next 45 days, lawmakers will pass the state’s budget for the coming year.

Public education is one of the biggest parts of that budget, even though the state’s spending on education is consistently one of the lowest in the country.

While the state and local school districts share the responsibility of funding schools, Jacob Wright, senior budget and policy analyst for the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, said the state covers about 75% of the cost.

The education funding formula

During the session, lawmakers start with an education “base budget.” This includes everything that was spent on public education during the last fiscal year, excluding any “one-time funding.” Lawmakers are also statutorily required to make a budget increase to keep up with inflation and enrollment growth.

The biggest debate, Wright said, is how lawmakers want to spend new revenue the state is expected to generate. Gov. Spencer Cox, for example, asked that more funding go to rural schools in his budget proposal.

The Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee will hear presentations on funding requests, then create a list of priorities for the Executive Appropriations Committee.

But for the public, the star of the show is usually the Weighted Pupil Unit. That’s how much funding the state will give schools based on enrollment. Schools get one WPU for each of their students. If a student has a disability, the school will receive a second WPU.

To keep up with inflation, the per pupil funding should go up by at least 3.8% this year, according to the governor’s budget.

“The question will be and has been for the past few years: Will the legislature provide an additional increase in the value of the Weighted Pupil Unit? Historically they have,” Wright said.

Cox proposed a 5% total increase — 1.2% more than what is required. Meanwhile, the Utah Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has asked for a minimum 12% total WPU increase and is “disappointed” in Cox’s proposal.

Wright said a common misconception is that the per pupil funding represents all the money schools receive. Nevertheless, WPU is “probably the single largest source of new ongoing revenue” for schools.

Another misconception Wright said is that lawmakers determine how much teachers are paid. In 2023, lawmakers did pass a bill to increase educator salaries by $4,200, and the state gave schools additional funding that had to go toward giving teachers that raise. But that raise was in addition to what schools were paying their employees. Wright said with most from the state, the schools decide how they use the money.

Where education funds come from

Wright said there isn’t anywhere in state code that defines what the balance should be between how much the state pays for and how much local districts should contribute. He thinks the 75-25 split between state and local is generally what Utahns are comfortable with.

The state does require all districts to impose a “basic” property tax on their areas to maintain and operate schools. That rate is the same across Utah. Since property values differ, state funds will be directed to make up shortfalls in a district where tax revenue is below a certain threshold. But school district boards can also add their own tax increases.

Funding for schools mainly comes from state income tax and property tax revenue. Currently, the income tax revenue can only be used to fund education and some social services, per Utah’s Constitution.

Legislative leaders want to get rid of that earmark, and since it requires a change to the Constitution, it will be on the 2024 ballot for voters to decide. If the earmark is removed, lawmakers said they’ll also do away with the state portion of the food sales tax.

The Constitutional amendment would also trigger a change to the state’s WPU.

With Utah’s school enrollment projected to decline over the next decade, districts have been considering how to handle the decrease in per pupil funding.

In response, lawmakers passed a 2023 law titled “Hold Harmless for Public Education Enrollment Decline.” It says that for at least the next five years, if the state is projected to save money because of declines in enrollment, those savings will be used to increase per pupil spending. However, this change only goes into effect if voters approve getting rid of the tax earmark for education.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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