Guest opinion: How Utah voters should tackle education tax questions

Voters are being asked to weigh in on tax hikes for public education – both in the form of a state ballot initiative (next year possibly) and by way of school bonds right now.

For families in the Granite School District, Canyons School District, Ogden School District, Weber School District, Morgan County School District and South Summit School District, their opportunity to weigh in on school bonds ends Nov. 7.  

Not all public education money questions are the same, and the relationship between money and student achievement is complicated. When navigating ballots with proposals for more public education money, voters should consider the following questions:

How will the money be spent?

Education is about students, and all requests for public education funding should have a direct link to improving education for students. How decision-makers spend money has a far greater impact on student achievement than how much is spent.

Transparency is key. Voters deserve details about where their money is going, not vague promises. And the world is changing rapidly, so educational opportunities need to meet 21st-century realities. Requests for more money should be accompanied by a specific plan for keeping pace with technology, connecting students to industry opportunities, and providing flexibility in time, pace, place, and interests of individual student learning. Justification for school bonds to improve education buildings is rightly centered on safety concerns, but voters should also ask how new or renovated buildings will provide infrastructure for new technologies and more student-centered methods of learning.

Are there less expensive ways of reaching the outcome?

Improvements can often be achieved through innovative ways of thinking rather than just new funding. For instance, schools across the country have used Opportunity Culture – an initiative of Public Impact – to improve teacher retention and student outcomes by reallocating existing resources in a school’s budget. Without requiring more money, Opportunity Culture in an inner-city Nashville school not only developed creative career ladders in the classroom, but also found ways to pay teachers more.

When it comes to school bonds for buildings, voters should ask if safety concerns and technological updates could be best achieved through a rebuild or through renovation. Rebuilding can be costly, but so too are constant repairs. Additionally, if a new building project is inevitable, it’s worth considering whether it may be cheaper to move forward with a project today rather than waiting for the situation to get worse and more expensive tomorrow.

How much has the public been a part of the process?

Voters should consider to what extent the public was brought into discussions that would ask them for more money. Requests for increased income, sales or property taxes impact households and state economies. And education affects individual students and families. Because ballot initiatives and local board decision-making are part of our shared civic process, the public deserves robust opportunities to help craft policies by asking questions, sharing concerns and offering ideas.

Voters should be cautious about proposals that they have not fully vetted first. Some voters in Ogden School District have raised concerns about the public vetting process for the bond proposal, saying that the public didn’t have enough time to consider the proposal before having to turn in their ballots.

To determine whether the public had the chance to vet money questions, voters should ask about the specificity of the proposal’s language, notices of public hearings, and decision-making timelines.

Christine Cooke, J.D., a former public school teacher, is education policy director at Sutherland Institute.