With the “listening phase” over and the “study phase” underway, I would like to share a teacher’s perspective on what I’ve seen so far from the Utah Tax Restructuring and Equalization Task Force.
First, let me share my great appreciation for both the legislative task force members who took considerable time to gather input and the concerned citizens of Utah who spoke to the issue, wrote thoughtful comments and represented interests throughout our state. In particular, I am grateful for the many educators who prioritized attendance at these town hall meetings and who spoke for our students, our communities and our profession. Our expertise and knowledge of how funding impacts students in our classroom is crucial in these conversations.
Second, I convey my dismay (and frankly shock) regarding the biased materials presented as “fact” on the strongerfutures.utah.gov site and presented at the town hall meetings. As a library media teacher for almost two decades, I taught students to assess materials for credibility. Resources provided contain biased images, lack source citations and contain contradictory statements, beginning with the assertion that “total state revenue is sufficient.” As educators we can say unequivocally that current revenue is NOT sufficient. We face critical unmet needs in our public schools such as the unmanageable number of children in our classroom, the inability to attract and retain teachers, and the growing demands of an increasingly diverse student population.
Third, legislative task force members have said all options for tax restructure are “on the table.” If that’s the case, why are only four possible solutions presented? Why do we continually hear the any solution must be “revenue neutral?” If our tax structure is truly outdated and our service needs are not being met, shouldn’t an increase in revenue at least be a consideration?
Finally, I express my disappointment with the way educators’ opinions were addressed during the town hall meetings. Without fail, each town hall included comments about how “sick and tired” certain legislators are about hearing how Utah has the nation’s lowest in per pupil funding. Well, guess what? We are sick and tired of it, too. It is the reason why teachers from across the state spoke up for our students insisting that it’s not enough to simply maintain or “hold harmless” education funding. Our students need secure, sustainable and GROWING education revenue sources.
During the Task Force “study phase” I anticipate considerable discussion around the constitutional guarantee that all Utah income tax goes to fund education. This is a promise forged in our Utah State Constitution to ensure our state has an educated population and our public schools are funded in perpetuity. A 1996 Constitution change permitted the income tax to be used for higher education in addition to K-12 public ed. What was once a small percentage of higher education’s budget coming from the income tax is now nearing 100%. After more than two decades of shifting funds, the legislature now faces a growing income tax it is constitutionally bound to use on education. Do our elected representatives have the will to invest in our students? Or, will they work to remove the constitutional guarantee? Or, worse yet, will they seek to cut the tax that funds education?
While I appreciate the focus on education funding, I’m nervous for our students. A report recently released by the Utah Foundation finds that Utah may be falling short of its potential due to lack of education funding. What student potential are we leaving on the table by having the lowest funded schools in the nation? I hope this question comes up in the discussion. I also hope our elected policymakers will recall past promises that as the economy grows, income tax revenues will grow and thereby increase the revenue for public education.
Our Utah educators deserve high praise for having “done so well with so little for so long.” We see the children in our classrooms and we know what curiosity we could inspire, what dreams we could ignite if we only had the resources to support all students in fulfilling their potential.
Heidi Matthews is a Park City junior high school media teacher, elected by public school teachers statewide to serve as president of the Utah Education Association.