Members of Utah’s Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee met Wednesday to discuss up to $380 million in possible cuts to the state’s education funding. The hearing is part of a larger effort from Utah lawmakers to balance the state’s budget, which is projected to lose up to $1.3 billion in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Along with every other state agency, the Utah State Board of Education and legislative fiscal analysts were asked to provide recommendations for cutting 2%, 5% and 10% of the education budget. That’s in addition to $403 million state public schools had been granted in the 2020 general legislative session, but shelved as the pandemic took hold.
Heidi Matthews, president of the public education advocacy group Utah Education Association, said the cuts will be devastating for Utah’s schools next year, particularly as teachers are working harder than ever to keep students engaged during school closures.
“The challenges in the fall are going to be enormous,” Matthews said. “Much more than what we experienced in March,” because it still isn’t clear what schools will look like when they reopen.
Utah historically has spent among the least of any state on education. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the state ranked dead last in per pupil funding.
Members of the subcommittee voted on several budget items Wednesday, though they did not make it through every scenario. Among the approved cuts were a $13 million reduction to charter school administrative functions and the elimination of a $6 million program for math and science teachers who offer additional classes.
Other items still on the table include a nearly $150 million cut to a class size reduction effort and a possible 25% hit to a digital teaching and learning program.
State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson said the education board’s recommendations tried to preserve teacher salaries and per pupil spending as much as possible.
“We’re also hoping that some of these cuts that we are recommending are treated as one time,” Dickson said. “[So] that when this economy rebounds — which it will — that we can start to revisit some of these things.”
Matthews, with UEA, said budget cuts shouldn’t be on the table until the state’s budget projections are fully understood and all other funding options are considered. Those include federal relief money and the state’s rainy day fund, which has reserved around $555 million for education.
“Don’t automatically assume these cuts are necessary,” she said. “The UEA disputes the assumption that the discussion must begin with budget reduction scenarios.”
For now, the committee's suggestions are still just recommendations. Lawmakers will look to meet again to vote on the remaining items ahead of a special legislative session next month.
Jon Reed is a reporter for KUER. Follow him on Twitter @reedathonjon