Utahns are full steam ahead on voting. Many are filling out their ballots at home and trying to figure out the long list of propositions and amendments.
There’s plenty to think through. Especially for Question 1 – the nonbinding gas tax question.
What will Question 1 do for education if it passes?
Question 1 is a nonbinding ballot question. Rather than creating law, its passage will serve as a signal to the Legislature that Utahns are willing to have their gas tax raised in hopes of improving education.
Politically, it’s a way for elected officials to feel comfortable voting for another significant tax hike on a traditionally tax-hike-averse population. In this year’s session, the Legislature increased property taxes for public education, and in 2017 it increased the gas tax. Getting the blessing from constituents before raising taxes for the third time in three years makes some political sense.
If Question 1 is successful, the Legislature has made an informal agreement to pass The Teacher and Student Success Act, the vehicle for the gas tax and its accompanying policies. Basically, the law will allow schools to spend the funds on a variety of things, except for capital expenditures (buildings) and district administration, but it doesn’t get too specific beyond that. Some see this policy as increasing local control over schools and some see it as lacking the specificity needed to assure accountability to taxpayers.
For some, Question 1 allows the public to tell their representatives they want more money in public schools. To others, the question narrowly limits the message that the public can send about education reform – perhaps at the expense of grander ideas for how to think outside the box in education.
What does the gas tax have to do with education?
The gas tax has nothing to do with education directly. But indirectly, gas tax revenue (or the lack of it) can impact how much is spent on education. Because Utah’s gas tax revenue has been insufficient to pay for transportation needs, our state has been pulling money from its general fund (mostly sales taxes) to pay for transportation and roads. Utah’s colleges and universities get general fund money too, along with some income tax funds that must go to either K-12 public schools or higher education. By increasing the gas tax, policymakers can use those funds for transportation, and shift general funds currently going to transportation into education. If that sounds complicated, it’s because it is.
And even this particular tax hike proposal splits its allegiance between roads and education – though most of it would be used to increase education funding. The proposed gas tax hike would increase the gas tax by 10 cents per gallon, with 70 percent of those funds being used to increase education funding, and 30 percent of that money going to roads. Convoluted though it may be, its primary purpose is to increase funds for public education.
Will the anticipated increases impact educational outcomes for Utah students?
The short answer? We don’t know. The difficult reality of this topic is that there is no consistent relationship between inputs (like increases to per-pupil spending) and student achievement. So though it sounds intuitive that more money leads to better outcomes, that does not often play out in research or reality.
As is often talked about, Utah is 51st in per-pupil spending but ranked 10th in the nation in 4th-grade reading and 12th for 4th-grade math proficiency. Our graduation rates are above the national average, and we have more students participating in and passing Advanced Placement exams than other states. Obviously, a state can boast considerable student achievement even while falling far below the national average spending per pupil.
Other studies from Stanford University have shown no correlation, or weak correlation, between per-pupil spending amounts and student outcomes. This echoes the results of the well-known Coleman report from the 1960s, which indicates that other factors such as a parent’s marital status and level of education are far stronger indicators of a student’s performance in school than resources like school spending.
The Student and Teacher Success Act requires the money to be spent on plans “reasonably designed to improve school performance or student academic achievement.” The funds can’t be spent on just anything, which is a good safeguard. Unfortunately, “reasonably designed” means little for guaranteed outcomes.
What are the next steps if Question 1 passes?
Let’s not settle on the idea that Utah has achieved education reform if this second tax hike for public education is successful. We should ask: What should be done with the funding increases if Question 1 passes and The Student and Teacher Success Act is put into law?
What almost everyone can agree on is the fact that some policies are more important to fund than others. For instance, a 2016 study found that funding increases have the best chance of improving students’ performance when focused on low-income, diverse school districts – measured in terms of not only test results, but in number of years of school completed, average wage and average poverty rate later in life.
A study published this year also found that focusing spending on instruction (as opposed to facilities or administration) is correlated with significant gains in student test performance in Michigan. And other studies show that education options lead to improved test scores.
The point is if we choose to tax ourselves for the hope of improving the future of Utah’s children, let’s be conscious of what policies are most likely to get us there. And if we pass Question 1 – sending the message we are OK with raising the gas tax for public education – let’s also send the message to our legislators that taxpayer funds should be spent wisely.
Christine Cooke, J.D., a former public school teacher, is education policy director at Sutherland Institute.