Commentary: A cut to Utah income taxes is a cut to education funding

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Students raise their hands in full classroom of 32 students in a Spanish class at South Jordan Middle School Monday Feb. 1. Lawmakers will consider a proposal to raise taxes to fund schools, which could pay for technology, teacher salaries and relieve pressure on over crowding.

Utah lawmakers are discussing a massive multi-million dollar cut to the state’s education fund.

If that doesn’t have you worried, it should.

Utah educators have endured largely stagnant wages and bursting class sizes for years, particularly during the Great Recession. Though that economic dip has long since corrected, Utah education never recovered and we remain firmly committed to our last place in the nation for per pupil spending. In fact, the recent Voices for Utah’s Children 2019 Children’s Budget Report finds per pupil spending is down 1.3 percent (adjusted for inflation) from before the recession and education funds were $41 million lower last year than the year before.

Meanwhile, unfunded mandates on teachers continue unabated. The last time I calculated my work hours during the school year, I found I put in the same time expected of a white collar professional over 12 months during my nine-month school contract. My second job added three more months of work, calculated by hours.

It’s an exhausting pace and I’ve been told I must be inefficient with my time, but you won’t find a more cost efficient group of teachers in the country when calculating class size and pay. It takes twice as long to grade essays when you have twice the students, as Utah teachers often do, unless we cut corners on their education. At some point, you get what you pay for.

We love the students and put our hearts and souls into the work, but free market economics has pushed the education profession past the breaking point. The common myth that “money doesn’t matter” in education needs to be settled once and for all. We aren’t preparing enough teachers through university programs to replace those retiring in the near future. Next school year will see a significant bump in retirements and it’s already too late to properly prepare their replacements.

University students are voting with their feet, and with good reason: The nationwide pay penalty for choosing to teach is roughly 20 percent lower weekly earnings than other college educated workers, according to a recent Economic Policy Institute report. It’s a 32 percent penalty for Utah teachers. Summer jobs don’t fill that gap. Temp work pay is usually even worse.

The problem is here and now. Many schools have unqualified substitute teachers permanently staffing classrooms. Irregular substitute jobs often go unfilled, pulling other teachers out of their normal classrooms because there’s a substitute shortage too. Twenty-nine-hour teacher aide positions are unfilled because prospective applicants quickly figure out they can earn more money working in a call center or flipping burgers. Teacher turnover is particularly concerning for new educators, and significantly worse for unprepared teachers pursuing Alternate Routes to Licensure. This exacerbates turnover because experienced teachers are expected to support them while they learn on the job. We’re losing mid-career teachers who get fed up with uncompensated demands on their time.

Research is absolutely clear that money matters in education, with some caveats. The Learning Policy Institute reported in December 2017 that “aggregate per-pupil spending is positively associated with improved student outcomes.” The Brookings Institute reported in March 2017 that short term money does not improve student learning, probably because of how it is spent. However, “changes in spending induced by state education finance reforms improved outcomes such as test scores, high school graduation, and earnings.” In other words, long-term money, wisely invested, absolutely correlates to improved student learning.

If we really do want a home-grown, well-educated competitive workforce, we must invest in education beyond growth. Too many Utah students are already suffering the consequences of miserly funding and if current trends continue, we’ll see the ongoing slow-motion teacher walkout get a lot worse before it gets better. Utah students and teachers deserve better.

It’s true that income tax revenues are up this year, and this is cause for celebration — for Utah students.

The Utah income tax is the education fund, per the Utah Constitution. Any cut to Utah’s income tax is a cut to education. Full stop.

Deborah Gatrell

Deborah Gatrell is a social studies teacher in Granite District and Utah Teacher Fellow working to amplify teacher voice in education policy. Follow her on Twitter @DeborahGatrell1 or continue the conversation by emailing her at deborah.gatrell@hsgfellow.org.