Sen. Pat Jones' proposal to raise much-needed revenue for public education is based on one simple principle that all Utahns understand: fairness.
Utah parents are the most fertile in the nation. Large families are more than just the norm for many Utahns: Having many children is a sort of status symbol, especially among members of the predominant religion. Doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encourages married members to be procreative to the point that the average family in the Beehive State is the largest in the nation.
But the church also emphasizes personal responsibility, and when it comes to funding for public education, parents of large families are irresponsible. It's not their fault, at least not directly. The Utah Legislature, predominantly Mormon and Republican, champions an income tax system that lets Utahns with many children off the hook in paying for their education in public schools by allowing tax exemptions for as many dependents as a family wants. That means the largest families, those that are crowding Utah's classrooms, pay little or no state income tax, the tax pool that primarily funds education in the state.
And that is simply not fair.
Jones' proposed legislation is elegantly simple much simpler than previous ideas she and former state Rep. Steve Mascaro proposed for seven years running. It would eliminate all personal state income-tax exemptions for tax filers and their dependents. The tax rate would remain the same; no exemptions for some taxpayers and not for others; no fancy formulas or loopholes.
And it would raise $400 million a year in on-going education funding that would go directly to schools, instead of passing through the state Office of Education. Local school community councils would decide how to spend the money.
The figure of $400 million is what Jones refers to as the "magic number" needed to reduce class sizes and hire the reading specialists, teachers' aides and guidance counselors who could make a huge difference to the progress of students, particularly at-risk kids,
It's the number cited by Utah's business-led Prosperity 2020 coalition, which says $400 million would allow it to meet its goals of boosting reading and math scores and graduation rates.
The senator's proposal is fair in another way: It would take 10 percent off the top and distribute it equally statewide, so that charter schools and schools in rural communities would be guaranteed a fair share. The rest would be distributed to schools according to student population.
Of course, Jones will encounter the opposition she and Mascaro faced every year they brought similar proposals to their colleagues. Conservative legislators, many of whom have large families, balk at what they erroneously call a "tax increase."
While the average Utah household would pay about $500 a year more in income taxes, Jones' rightly explains that the bill, instead of raising taxes, would eliminate an unfair tax break large families have been enjoying at the expense of their childless neighbors for decades.
And, rather than discouraging new businesses from locating in the state, as Royce Van Tassell of the Utah Taxpayers Association claims, this reform measure would make Utah attractive to business owners looking for a reliable source of well-educated workers and a healthy school system for their own children.
If "education" were instead listed as "economic development" in the state budget, legislators probably would better appreciate its importance and would be less opposed to earmarking new revenue for it.
But public schools and the parents and children who depend on them and support them so energetically do not have the deep pockets that seem to purchase favor with lawmakers.
Indeed, conservative legislators would like to turn education over to private businesses, eviscerating the public system that is constitutionally assigned to lift all children to their potential, no matter the income or ethnic background of their parents.
Utah's public schools are at a crossroads. We don't need more assessments; we know which schools need the most help and we know that all Utah schools are underfunded. Now it's time for legislators to step forward and do the fair thing, the right thing for Utah children.
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