A pay raise of more than $2,000 a year for every public school teacher in Utah.
That’s what GOP legislative leaders are now talking about.
And it must be said, such a generous action towards Utah’s 18,000 or so teachers could also have an impact on whether voters next November vote to raise their personal income and sales taxes to give a large boost to public school financing.
Most of the GOP legislators and Republican Gov. Gary Herbert oppose the Our Schools Now citizen initiative petition, which would pump more than $700 million annually into schools – much of that money likely going to teacher pay hikes.
In an open GOP House caucus Thursday, leaders presented to their 62-member caucus the idea that a little more than half of the $69 million budget subcommittees have “scrubbed” from ongoing agency base budgets would be directed specifically to teacher pay increases.
At just over $41 million, lawmakers could give a $2,000 pay raise to every teacher.
Soon to be decided, leaders say, is an increase in the Weighted Pupil Unit – the state’s main per-student funding formula – with the understanding that most, if not all, of that would go to teacher pay.
Now, admittedly, it would be up to the 41 individual school district boards how they spend the annual WPU state allotment.
Some boards, in negotiations with their teacher unions, could give much or most of the WPU increase to teachers.
Other districts may not.
But teachers could be getting hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars more each year in the 2018-2019 fiscal year increase in the WPU, as well — on top of the $2,000 pay hike.
That’s why the GOP House and Senate leaders are asking their caucus members to specifically take half of the savings in base budget cutbacks and give that money directly to teachers – bypassing the 41 school districts.
Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, says lawmakers have been scouring the budget to find extra money to boost education funding.
“We’ve got to find a way to pay for our #1 infrastructure need, education.”
Adams said they’re also looking at other routes to boost funding, that may come “outside of the traditional WPU revenue stream.” It appears they may have found that non-traditional source.
Talking about the Our Schools Now citizen initiative movement, Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, told his Republican House colleagues: “We are fighting a publicity messaging machine,” which is moving toward making the ballot and getting voters to raise their own personal income and sales taxes for schools.
Even though the Legislature has increased public school spending by $830 million over the last three fiscal years, no one is giving lawmakers (especially the majority Republicans) any credit for that, said Hutchings.
“We get no credit. We see no real impact” on that spending in the schools, or class size reduction, or in happy teachers, he said.
But despite some GOP lawmakers belief that they get little credit, much blame for about everything, recent UtahPolicy.com poll by Dan Jones & Associates finds the state Legislature has a really good job approval rating, especially compared to legislative bodies in other states.
“Do we need to more directly” give money to teachers? Hutchings asked.
“Yes,” he answered his own question.
“We have a chance here,” said House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, to really make an impact on teacher pay and school betterment.
Several veteran Republicans said the Legislature has really stepped up in recent years in public education funding – but lawmakers don’t see improvement like they wish.
Left mostly unsaid in the caucus, is the fact that the OSN (and perhaps a few of the other citizen initiatives) are coming because a few powerful special interest groups are fed up with Republican lawmakers not stepping up in several areas – like school funding and approving medical marijuana use.
And have decided to take matters into their own hands via Utah’s citizen initiative route.
That’s not to say there are no real problems in Utah education:
Half of all teachers quit the profession within their first five years.
There are various reasons for that, but poor pay and morale is certainly among them.
Utah remains last in the nation in per-student funding.
Science, math and special education teachers are in short supply.
It’s still unclear if the GOP more than $2,000 pay raises would go to all teachers, equally.
Or would STEM teachers get more, or would teachers with higher performance ratings get more.
Several GOP lawmakers complained that WPU increases have gone to all teachers in recent years because individual school boards don’t want to anger teacher unions and give performance pay only.
But the OSN petition-gathering effort is heavily counting on teacher and other school employees to do the legwork of getting the 113,000 signatures to make the ballot – and/or to sway public opinion in favor of the tax hikes come November.
And if the GOP teacher pay raises are tied to performance pay or other issues disliked by many teachers, then the legislative effort may be politically blunted at the ballot box.
Still, the Republicans’ legislative effort to better fund schools over recent years should be given some credit; and a $2,000 teacher pay hike across the board would be a significant addition.