How Unfunded Earmarks Are Undermining the Budget Process and Affecting Utah Families and Children

earmarksUtah’s unrestricted General Fund continues to decline as a stable and reliable revenue source due to a nearly 1200% increase in earmarks from FY 2005 to FY 2015, from $42 million to over half a billion dollars, from 2% to over 18% of the overall General Fund and still rising. This practice of earmarking, which means a multi-year diversion of funds (and none of the major General Fund earmarks has a sunset provision), runs contrary to best practices in public budgeting because it ties the hands of policymakers and undermines their ability to use the annual budgeting process to meet the evolving needs of the state’s ever-growing and ever-changing economy and population.

This explosion of earmarks has been primarily for the purpose of meeting the state’s transportation needs. The earmarks in question are all “unfunded” earmarks, meaning that none of them was created with a new revenue source to finance it, even though they address newly identified investments required to keep up with the state’s growing economy and population.

This enormous diversion of resources has meant that everything else financed by the General Fund, including education, public safety, drug treatment, aid for the disabled, support for vulnerable families, and many more, has been given short shrift, leaving critical needs unmet and allowing the state to fall behind in a number of important areas, threatening to undermine progress toward the state’s most important goals.

The rise of unfunded earmarks bears considerable resemblance to the decision made by an earlier generation of policy makers in 1996 to divert Education Fund revenues to fund higher education as well as K-12 education.

The report concludes with a call for a return to best practices in the annual budgeting process so as to allow policymakers to adapt to changing circumstances in good times and bad. Read the complete report:
What's Still Eating Utah's General Fund?

What Does the General Fund Do?
All Utahns benefit from an adequate General Fund. The state programs it pays for provide functional and efficient courts, a statewide system of colleges and universities, and the enforcement of rules regarding commercial transactions, environmental protection, water safety, control of contagious diseases, and much more. The GF also provides a safety net for families in need, including the disabled and those in need of drug treatment and mental health services.  

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Chronic Absence is a Two-Generation Problem

Policies that help parents keep kids in school, such as family leave policies and effective transportation systems; coupled with programs that help the child, such as attention to bullying; and improved policies at the school level, such as collecting the right data and working with families to identify barriers to school attendance will ensure that every child succeeds.

"The reality is an absence is an absence, excused or not, and that child is not in that classroom benefiting from the instruction on that day. We have to work in our community, with our schools and our families to build a culture of attendance."
Ralph Smith, Executive Vice President, Annie E. Casey Foundation

Download the printer-friendly report:
Attendance and the Early Grades: A Two Generation Issue


Chronic absence, missing 10 percent of the school year or more, is an early warning indicator of academic trouble for students and later;dropout. Excused and unexcused absences easily add up to too much time lost in the classroom. Students are at risk academically if they miss 10 percent of the school year, or about 18 days. Once too many absences have occurred, it affects learning, regardless of whether absences are excused or unexcused.

The map below shows the percent of elementary school students who were chonically absent in school year 2013. On average, no district had less than 90 percent of their students absent on a given day, despite exceptionally high rates of chronic absence in some schools and districts. Clearly, average daily attendance can mask a chronic absence problem.

Chronic Absence Utah Map Page 3

Chronic Absence Utah Map Page 2

Reducing chronic absence can help close achievement gaps. Chronic absence especially affects achievement for low-income students who depend more on school for opportunities to learn. Because they are more likely to face systemic barriers to getting to school, low-income children, many of whom are children of color, have higher levels of chronic absence starting as early as kindergarten.

A 2012 research brief by the Utah Education Policy Center that looked at the percent of chronically absent students by school year, found that kindergarten and first grade students tended to be chronically absent more often than their older elementary school peers. Further, on average, being chronically absent in one grade increased the odds of being chronically absent in the next grade by nearly 13 times. For each year that a student was chronically absent, his or her odds of dropping out nearly doubled. Studies from multiple states have shown that chronically absent high school students are less likely to graduate. Improving student attendance is an essential, cost-effective but often overlooked two-generation strategy for ensuring that students are on-track to learn and succeed, and to decrease the chance of living in poverty as adults.

Chronic absence does not just affect the students who miss school. If too many students are chronically absent, it slows down instruction for other students, who must wait while the teacher repeats material for absentee students. This makes it harder for students to learn and teachers to teach.


All schools enroll some students who have injuries or illnesses leading to frequent absences, and schools should know who these students are and design individual strategies to support them. Schools where five percent of students are chronically absent do not have systemic attendance failures. However, in schools where 20 percent of students are chronically absent, the extent to which schools, families and communities each might play a contributing role needs to be considered.

While illness is a leading factor in chronic early absence, others such as poverty, teenage parenting, single parenting, low maternal education levels, unemployment, poor maternal health, and household food insecurity all can affect school attendance. The 2012 Utah Education Policy Center Policy research brief found that students from low-income homes were 90 percent more likely to be chronically absent. Students who are absent from school miss opportunities to learn and develop positive relationships within the school community. During the early elementary school years, children develop important skills and approaches to learning that are critical for ongoing school success. Through their experiences in K-3 classrooms, children build academic, social-emotional and study skills. Children who are chronically absent in kindergarten show lower levels of achievement in math, reading and general knowledge in first grade.

Children who are homeless or formerly homeless experience poor educational outcomes related to school absenteeism and mobility. Other families may be dealing with serious problems (e.g. mental illness, child or domestic abuse, incarceration of a parent, etc.) that make school attendance difficult because family life has been disrupted and public agencies and schools lack a coordinated response.

Chronic absenteeism also can result from poor quality education, ambivalence about or alienation from school, and chaotic school environments, including high rates of teacher turnover, disruptive classrooms and/or bullying.

Improving student attendance is an essential, cost-effective but often overlooked strategy for ensuring our students are on-track to learn and succeed. While addressing some attendance barriers- such as health, poor transportation, and unstable housing- can require longer-term strategies, everyone can make a difference by helping students and families understand that going to school every day and avoiding absences whenever possible is critical to realizing success in school and success in life.

Voices for Utah Children is proud to be a part of the Aspen Institute Ascend Network. The goal of the Aspen Institute Ascend Network is to mobilize empowered two-generation organizations and leaders to influence policy and practice changes that increase economic security, educational success, social capital, and health and well-being for children, parents, and their families. Learn more at http:/ /

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