Utah PTA joins in support of big schools funding change

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) In this 2016 file photo, 5th grade students take a short "Brain Break," at Ascent Academy in Farmington dance and sing along to a video on the screen.

The Utah Parent Teacher Association announced Monday its support of a major shift in the way public schools are funded in the state, adding its voice to a growing number of education-focused interest groups endorsing the proposal in the final days of the 2020 legislative session.

In a prepared statement, the Utah PTA said that finding a long-term solution to public education funding involves a “tightrope of complexity." The group asked for more clarity around the legislation — which seeks a public vote in November on amendments to the state constitution — while signing off on its plan to creating funding floors and new budget reserves for schools.

“We support the creation of the public education economic stabilization fund to support our schools during an economic downturn,” the Utah PTA said.

The new plan comes in the wake of a failed attempt at tax reform, which was repealed earlier this year. Legislative leaders say their inability to access income tax funds for noneducation programs has become a problem as the state sales tax base erodes under new spending habits.

Under the proposal, constitutional language restricting the state’s income tax spending to public and higher education would be broadened to also include services for children and individuals with disabilities. That change would be linked to new legislation requiring lawmakers to meet annual school funding increases tied to enrollment growth and inflation and setting aside money each year to protect future school budgets against a recession.

However, unlike constitutional provisions which are difficult to enact, statutes can be changed by a simple majority vote in the Legislature.

The PTA’s announcement of support follows similar endorsements by the Utah Board of Education and the associations for the state’s school district board members and superintendents.

But the Utah Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has continued to oppose the two bills that jointly form the education proposal — SJR9 and HB357 — with its representatives praising elements of the plan while withholding support as negotiations continue on unspecified concerns.

That position was reiterated to lawmakers Monday by Jay Blain, a lobbyist for the UEA, which prompted a tense cross-examination by Provo Republican Sen. Curt Bramble, who has made a point of challenging the UEA’s opposition during debate on the two bills.

“You oppose this bill, but you won’t tell us what it is that you want in the bill?" Bramble said. “I want to make sure that I’m understanding, very clearly, your testimony.”

Blain responded that there are “sound principles” in the bills but that the UEA is looking for additional changes before it can support the proposal.

“That’s all I can say at the time,” Blain said.

Another teachers union, the Utah chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, had not taken a position for or against the proposal as of Monday.

The bills emerged last week with days left in the 45-day legislative session. On Friday, the House voted for HB357 and the Senate approved SJR9. Both bills were heard and approved by committees Monday ahead of final votes in the opposite chambers this week. Most Democrats have opposed the measures.

Educators have traditionally resisted efforts to tinker with the state’s constitutional earmark on the income tax, arguing that it guarantees a source of revenue for schools and ensures that public education will be prioritized during budget negotiations.

But in pitching the new proposal, legislative leaders have made repeated reference to the economic downturn of 2008 and the years of budget cuts and limited funding during and after the Great Recession. The combination of SJR9 and HB357, they argue, would leave Utah better prepared under similar circumstances, with greater flexibility for lawmakers to move money between the income and sales taxes and with dedicated funds set aside to supplement school spending.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said Monday that the number of groups that advocate for public education jumping on board with the proposal suggests that the idea “has legs.”

“We’re hearing that people like it,” Adams said.

McKay Jensen, president of the Utah School Boards Association, said the changes would not result in a windfall of new money for public education. But he praised the move toward stabilized funding, adding that the automatic funding increases would make it so educators aren’t starting each legislative sessions in a budgetary hole as costs and the number of children in the state increase.

“The current structure means that we have to ask for growth," Jensen said. “We have to ask for inflation to get [our funding] to zero and not an automatic cut, in a way.”

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, voted against HB357 in committee Monday, as did one of her House colleagues, Salt Lake City Democratic Rep. Joel Briscoe, during the hearing on SJR9.

Escamilla objected to members of the minority party being left out of the discussion on the funding proposal and questioned why it is only the income tax being targeted for changes in response to lopsided revenue.

“If we were going to take on the issue of our structural imbalance, we should be addressing sales tax at the same that we address income tax," she said. “My concern is we’re just doing one side of the whole equation, and it worries me."