By Rebekah Rast -
“The school is the last expenditure upon which America should be willing to economize.”—Franklin D. Roosevelt
There has not been a leader of this country that didn’t stress the importance of educating America’s youth.
Even Obama, very recently in his State of the Union address, acknowledged, “Over the next 10 years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school education. And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school. The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations. America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree. And so the question is whether all of us — as citizens, and as parents — are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.”
It is clear that education in this country has always been a priority.
Troubling and a bit ironic then is the fact that some states are battling with the federal government over revenue sources for education. These states aren’t in a fight to receive any handouts from the federal government; instead they are struggling to keep a revenue source that belongs to them — their land.
It wasn’t always this way. The Founding Fathers designated special territories in each state that were purposed to support schools. A short video by CLASS, Children’s Land Alliance Supporting Schools, explains that states received these lands as they entered statehood and more than 134 million acres of land were granted by Congress to support schools. By 2005, about half of all the states, mainly eastern states, had lost their school lands and funds due to mismanagement, but the remaining states have grown their funds to a total of $35 billion, compared to $210 million in 1905. Only 45 million acres of school trust lands remain in the U.S.
Though each state with a remaining trust fund handles it differently, they are all dependent upon the profits of the land to help support education. Revenues off these lands are accumulated from permits that allow grazing, ranching, farming, mining and hunting and in some cases involve selling the land to a developer for the building of a residential area or mall.
These states have made wise investments over the past century to ensure future generations have a properly funded education, but it hasn’t been easy. Many of these school trust lands are located in prime real estate locations that the federal government labels wilderness areas — areas where the land cannot be touched, taxed or profited from.
“It is a terrible truth that the federal government has more control over the economy and lands of states than elected governors and legislatures do,” says Don Todd, senior research director at Americans for Limited Government (ALG).
The federal government as of late has had a heyday labeling land as wilderness areas. And though the federal government cannot take school trust land per se, they can take all the surrounding land, thus reducing the value of the school trust land.
“When the government takes land and ties it up, that money is not going to educate our children,” says Susan Edwards, School Community Council Member in Utah for Crescent View Middle School and Alta High School. “The federal government is taking money away from our school children.”
If land belonging to the trust fund becomes locked in by land labeled as a wilderness area or land that needs to remain untouched due to an endangered species ruling, it is much harder for schools to generate funds off that land. A farmer or developer would be hesitant to purchase and invest in a parcel of land that is surrounded by federal rules and regulations.
“When the federal government declares their land off limits for productive uses, the in-held school lands cannot support our schools, and Utah’s children statewide suffer,” Utah Governor Gary R. Herbert explains to ALG.
States cannot afford to receive dwindling profits from these land trust funds. These funds are critical for schools as they finance building repairs or new technology. In the state of Utah, trust land funds are used for student’s academic success. The money might be spent to hire more classroom aids, form mentorship programs, build a computer lab or pay teachers who stay after hours to help at-risk children.
Utah’s Gov. Herbert goes on to say, “These issues are not merely rural issues or land issues. They have a direct effect on public education throughout the State of Utah. If wells are not drilled in the Uintah Basin, there will be fewer textbooks, fewer library books, fewer computers, and fewer teachers’ aides in public schools everywhere in Utah, including in the heavily populated Salt Lake Valley. The effects of these harsh restrictive federal measures will be felt by Utah’s public school children for generations, because the school trust is a permanent trust.”
The state of Utah is already at a disadvantage when it comes to funding for its education system. About two-thirds of the state, roughly 70 percent, is owned by the federal government. Though the federal government said much of this land would be sold upon the state achieving statehood and that 5 percent of the proceeds would go directly to fund education, it has yet to happen.
With two-thirds of the land already swallowed by the federal government, Utah’s education revenue comes from the land it has left. Of that land that is left, about only about 7 percent is designated as school trust land, says Cody Stewart, legislative director for Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT). The rest of land is at risk of falling into the hands of the federal government.
Utah State Senator Steve Urquhart stated on his blog, “Wilderness designation shuts down economic activity on federal and state lands. (Loss of royalties, severance tax, income tax, and sales tax). It stops motorized access to those areas, meaning most people stop going there to recreate, hunt, fish, picnic, etc. It stops oil and gas production. It stops timbering. It stops ranching. It stops most any activity that adds money to Utah’s coffers. We could be receiving serious revenues for education off those lands, but wilderness cuts that off.”
Why don’t states negotiate with the federal government and work out a land exchange? Because, Paula Plant, co-director of CLASS explains, “land exchanges are expensive and time intensive.”
She knows of a land exchange near the Colorado River corridor that has been underway for seven years. “If the federal government is going to create this many wilderness areas then it’s hard to find land to exchange,” she says. “You can’t trade land that has an endangered species; you won’t be able to do anything with it.”
Another disadvantage these school trust lands might soon face: “There is a tendency on the part of the legislators to want to use this money on other things, such as highways. There is always a fear of the state or federal government taking over the funds,” says Kirk Sitterud, Emery School District Superintendent, a rural school district in central Utah.
But for now, those Western states that retain their school trust lands hold on to them tightly — they depend on them as will future generations. But that isn’t to say they don’t feel the impact of actions already taken by the federal government.
“Education in the West is hurt, salaries for teachers in the West are hurt, the retirement system for educators in the West is hurt. The West is put at a decided disadvantage and very few people east of Denver comprehend that or understand that,” Utah’s Rep. Rob Bishop told ALG. “This Administration’s policy to lock up lands and refuse to develop them to their potential, hurts kids, it hurts the education in the West, period.”
Taking a trip to Western states like Utah looks as if the federal government puts environmental policies ahead of the education system and the nation’s school children.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt said that the school should be “the last expenditure upon which America should be willing to economize.” This doesn’t appear to be the thinking of the current Administration, and the nation’s school children of today and those of future generations will suffer for it.
Rebekah Rast is a contributing editor at Americans for Limited Government (ALG) News Bureau. You can follow her on Twitter at @RebekahRast.