The debate about Utah’s public education funding usually centers on the unique demographics of our state. The thinking is that, because of our large family size, we are doomed to be dead last in funding unless we raise taxes to a prohibitive level and stifle our economy or crush our wage earners.
The truth is, that although the multitude of students creates many challenges, we are last because we choose to be last. The position we are in is a direct result of conscious choices our leaders have made over the last 18 years.
Prior to 1996, Utah ranked 12th in the nation in commitment to public education, as measured by how much per $1,000 of income was directed toward education funding. By 2010, Utah had dropped to 34th and remains the lowest state in the nation in per pupil spending. So what has happened since 1996?
First, prior to 1996, public education was funded primarily through income taxes, some corporate taxes and a small amount from property taxes. All income taxes were dedicated exclusively to K-12 education, creating a guaranteed stream of revenue. A constitutional amendment in 1996 allowed income taxes to be diverted to other uses, particularly higher education, which previously had been funded from the General Fund. Consequently, funding for public education has dropped dramatically. According to Utahns for Public Schools, it is estimated that this one change has cost education between $250 million and $761 million dollars per year since 1996.
Second, in 2007, rather than raise the gas tax, a bill was passed that earmarked a certain portion of sales tax revenue for transportation. The effect of this change was to decrease revenue flowing to the General Fund, so that when money was needed for higher education, it was taken from the same revenue funding K-12 education.
Finally, over the intervening years there have been numerous reductions in corporate taxes and exemptions and credits for corporate property taxes, and a change in the income tax to a flat tax, further reducing available revenue. Some believe that these changes were designed to push public education toward charter schools and private school vouchers, while others would say the decreased funding for public education was the unintended consequence of these changes. Whatever the explanation, we are where we are as a result of conscious choices by our leaders.
This is actually great news. If we chose this path, we can choose to change it. Numerous polls have shown that over 70 percent of Utah taxpayers would pay more in taxes if it benefitted public education. So why don’t we raise taxes, or readjust the revenue streams that pay for education? The answer seems to be pure politics.
In spite of the fact that every politician and every governor states boldly that education is their number one priority, their actions do not bear that out. If that were the case it would be education that had an earmarked revenue source, not transportation. The business, construction and real estate lobbies are stronger than citizen or teacher associations that speak for education. They contribute more money and have more of a presence in the Legislature. Nobody wants to be associated with a tax increase and some legislators have publicly proclaimed that they will never support any tax increase to fund education.
Incredibly, Utah students are still competitive. This is due primarily to dedicated educators who will not give up, despite burgeoning class sizes, increased workload, diminishing resources and an erosion of respect for their professionalism. But we can do better. We just need to make that choice.
Mark A. Besendorfer is a fifth grade teacher in Canyons School District.
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