The January 9 UtahPolicy.com article “Lawmakers frustrated by efforts to find new way to fund schools” is an excellent reminder that the collective voice of Utah teachers has the attention of our state legislators.
To read the article, you’d think the Utah Education Association was refusing to engage with legislators in talks about long-term, stable education funding, and that we oppose tax reform, preferring instead the status quo.
That’s puzzling when you consider the many years teachers have demanded changes in education funding. In fact, the UEA has long recognized that Utah’s taxing formulas need revision. For several years, UEA’s legislative priorities, distributed to legislators prior to each legislative session, have included a call to “seek solutions to the chronic underfunding of public education by fixing Utah’s flawed tax structure.”
The UEA and our member teachers have been there at every opportunity to discuss ways to adequately fund our students. When the process for tax reform began in earnest last spring, we were optimistic. Teachers were out in force and first in line to make public comment at Town Hall meetings held around the state. We met with legislators at every opportunity, whether they liked what we had to say or not.
To say we are disappointed with the current tax reform outcome is a major understatement, but we have never shied from engaging in “honest discussions” about education funding. We chose not to lead an effort to repeal the tax reform bill, in part because of our desire to continue to work with legislators to develop an appropriate education funding solution.
The January 9 article mentioned a yet-to-be-publicly-released education funding proposal that, had it been in place 20 years ago, would have delivered 15-20 percent more funding to our schools than today. I find this statement coming from the legislature a bit disingenuous. Education funding is less a matter of tax policy than of political will. If the legislature had wanted to increase education investments over the past 20 years, they could have. They chose not to.
We believe resolving such a critical and complex issue as resourcing the long-term education needs of our students takes time. Our students deserve much better than a plan quickly devised in private, presented and approved during a two-week period over a major holiday without time for proper vetting and public review, which is what the legislature was proposing.
Despite a constitutional guarantee that dedicates all income tax to education, Utah perennially maintains its position last-in-the-nation when it comes to per-student funding. We support the current constitutional funding guarantee but are certainly open to the idea that “other, better ways can be found to guarantee that education funding grows with inflation and the growing number of students each year,” as stated in the article. We also believe status quo – simply covering enrollment growth and inflation – is not enough. We must significantly grow our education investments if we want to provide the schools our students deserve.
Teachers recognize the importance of growing education investments, but I understand how those who are not in a classroom everyday may wonder why our schools need more funding. I’m also often asked ‘when will it be enough?’ Here are just a few of the immediate school needs:
- Reduce the number of students per classroom to research-based optimums
- estimated annual cost: $1.1 billion ($612 million K-6 only)
- Expand paraeducators to all Utah elementary school classrooms
- estimated annual cost: $312 million
- Increase teacher salaries to start at $60,000 and grow to $110,000 over a career as recommended by A Vision for Teacher Compensation, Envision Utah 2019 and adopted by the Governor’s Education Excellence Commission
- estimated annual cost: $535 million
- Provide more scholarships for prospective teachers as recommended by A Vision for Teacher Compensation, Envision Utah 2019 and adopted by the Governor’s Education Excellence Commission
- estimated annual cost: $45 million
- Ensure access to high-quality pre-school and extended kindergarten programs as recommended in the Governor’s Utah Education Roadmap, 2018-2027
- estimated annual cost: $150 million
- Increase school counselors per student to national standard optimum of 1:250 as recommended in the Governor’s Utah Education Roadmap, 2018-2027
- estimated annual cost: $130 million
- Create trauma-informed schools through evidenced-based curriculum and training
- estimated annual cost: $5 million
- Increase student access to school psychologists, social workers and mental health counselors as recommended in the Governor’s Utah Education Roadmap, 2018-2027
- estimated annual cost: $264 million
If you’re counting, that’s more than $2.5 billion in new education investments…and these are only the top priority issues as continually emphasized by educators, parents and stakeholder groups studying these matters. There are many additional pressing concerns that simply lack the funding to implement. Once we have these basics covered, then we can start conversations about what is “enough.” In the meantime, we won’t back away from any chance for an open dialogue about how to properly fund education.
As an organization whose members have dedicated their careers to educating our children, we wholeheartedly commit to engaging in continued “honest discussions” about finding a long-term, stable and growing education funding sources. We look forward to working with legislators and education stakeholders to develop a plan that delivers the education opportunities our students so desperately need and deserve.
As always, Utah teachers stand ready to engage in honest discussions about supporting our students.
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.