Utah’s largest teachers union opposes diverting money from education, after staying neutral for a year

A proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot this fall would allow the state to use income tax money originally for education ‘to support other state needs.’

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) North Star Elementary School 5th and 6th graders build a structure during a summer STEM class, Thursday, July 6, 2023. Voters will decide this fall whether to remove a protection in Utah's constitution for education funding.

Utah’s largest teachers union decided not to object last year as lawmakers took a major step toward removing a mandate in the state constitution that protects funding for children and students.

The Utah Education Association also did not protest or attempt to intervene during the 2024 Legislature.

But Thursday, UEA President Renée Pinkney announced the union’s board has now decided to oppose the change, declaring it “goes against our values and challenges what we stand for.”

“We know public school is where childhood happens,” Pinkney wrote in a letter to union members, adding that the association believes “that every child, regardless of race, background, who they are, or where they live, has the right to learn in a welcoming, safe, well-resourced public classroom that fosters a strong sense of belonging where their curiosity and creativity come alive.”

In a statement, Utah Senate President J. Stuart Adams said he was disappointed in the UEA’s silence during the session and its new opposition now.

“I specifically requested feedback from [the UEA] during this Legislative session,” Adams said. “The UEA chose not to engage and waited until after the session to change their position. Stakeholders coming to the table to offer solutions is more productive and effective.”

Utah’s constitution requires the state to spend income tax revenue on public and higher education and some social services, allowing the funds to also “support children and to support individuals with a disability.”

Last year, lawmakers debated whether to ask voters to remove that spending restriction — promising that if Utahns support the change, lawmakers will eliminate the state portion of the sales tax on food.

The UEA’s neutrality gave the green light for lawmakers to bring SJR10 — a resolution to put the question on the November 2024 ballot — to a vote, and both chambers passed it on the final day of the 2023 session.

Higher-than-anticipated income tax collections have fueled Utah’s massive budget surpluses in recent years, and lawmakers have argued that removing the constitutional earmark would make budgeting easier.

[Read more: Inside the negotiations to amend Utah’s constitutional guarantee for education funding]

But critics of removing the protection for education point out that Utah has long spent less per student than most other states.

[Read more: Utah has no plans to change lowest-in-nation education spending, officials say]

Why did the UEA change its mind?

The UEA decided on its 2023 “no position” stance, Pinkney told The Salt Lake Tribune Thursday, because it saw that “education stakeholders” had given “conditional support” for the proposal in that year’s session. The Utah State Board of Education voted to endorse the proposed constitutional change, while still requesting funding increases.

The union continued to wait during the 2024 session, Pinkney added, to see if there were any language changes to the proposed constitutional amendment and to learn more about conditional support from stakeholders.

UEA leaders decided not to work with a lawmaker themselves this year to draft changes or to try to repeal the resolution, Pinkney added, because she attended legislative meetings last year and saw that “our concerns were well-vetted.”

She said she explained this reasoning to Adams.

But after lawmakers appropriated an additional $40 million this year to the state’s new private voucher program, bringing the total over two sessions to $82 million, “we realized we needed to stand for our values,” Pinkney said, especially because those funds continued to come out of income tax revenues.

“Imagine what this funding could do to meet the ever-increasing needs of our public school students and educators,” she wrote to members.

Dubbed “Utah Fits All,” the voucher program began accepting applications at the end of February.

“With the voucher program, there isn’t any accountability in terms of that funding,” Pinkney said. “For the public school system, there are all kinds of accountability measures placed on educators and districts. And we’re all for standards, but we’re not for double standards.”

Debating the change

Adams said he sees the proposed constitutional amendment as offering “a dual advantage,” guaranteeing “new protections for education funding” that allow “greater flexibility” in addressing the needs of the state while also getting rid of the state food sales tax.

Under the proposal, the Legislature would be required to “maintain a statutory public education funding framework” that uses revenue growth to cover increased school costs from inflation and student enrollment growth.

Last year, Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, objected that “there’s no commitment in the language of this constitutional change that obligates the Legislature to fund in meaningful levels. That is an inadequate safeguard to ensure that the children of the state of Utah are going to receive the benefit that they currently receive from our income taxes.”

But Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, and Rep. Karen Peterson, R-Clinton, who sponsored SJR10 last year, defended it in a statement Thursday.

The resolution “prioritizes education funding in our state constitution,” they said, “cementing our commitment to education by ensuring students and educators have necessary resources while providing voters the opportunity to remove the state sales tax on food. S.J.R. 10 is good for education and good for Utah families.”

They added that “education funding is a top priority for the Utah Legislature and our constituents. We appreciate our educators, and have nearly doubled public education funding in the past ten years. The education budget is $8.43 billion with a $832 million increase this year alone.”

This past session, lawmakers also approved putting $167 million aside to cut income taxes, in addition to the $480 million in 2022 and 2023 combined.

Pinkney said the continued commitment from lawmakers to reduce income taxes was “one of our concerns all along,” since reducing income tax revenue would mean reducing funds for public education.

“I asked, ‘How are you going to fund public education? Where are you going to get the funds?’ We didn’t really get a clear answer on that,” she said. “We have never realized a fully funded public education system in Utah. And public tax dollars should go to public schools.”

Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, released a statement Thursday showing her support for the UEA’s new position on the proposed resolution, emphasizing that it would divert funds away from public schools and that it “contradicts the crucial need to invest in our public education system.”

“I urge Utah voters to familiarize themselves with the items on the November ballot and make informed decisions about their votes,” Romero said. “By voting against the proposed constitutional change, you will be protecting Utah’s public school system and ensuring that every child has the opportunity to receive a quality education.”