Nolan Karras: Utah education needs to preserve its guaranteed source of revenue

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune) Historically, all income tax revenue in Utah has been spent on education. Recent tax reform efforts are challenging that idea.

Almost 90 years ago, Utah voters approved the state’s first income tax, with a constitutional guarantee that the money would fund our schools. That school funding guarantee has been a cornerstone of education and tax policy in our state, but it’s now at risk as a legislative task force considers recommending a repeal.

Now is precisely not the time to gut the funding guarantee for our schools. In fact, leaving the guarantee in place could finally generate the political will to invest more resources and ensure we have a world-class education system.

Legislators arguing for repeal claim that the tax system is out of balance, with sales taxes growing too slowly to fund general government needs, while the income tax is growing faster than the needs of our students and schools. They seek flexibility in the budget.

Much of the Legislature’s current flexibility problem is frankly self-inflicted. In the past decade, the Legislature began earmarking a large and growing portion of the state sales tax for transportation and, since 2012, this has taken more than $4 billion out of the general fund. This earmark has grown every year and is now nearly a quarter of the entire general fund.

Transportation investment is important, but is it more important than education? Both are needed in a young, rapidly growing state. Why remove the funding guarantee for education while keeping the earmarks for transportation?

One reason this has become an issue now is that legislators are running out of capacity with one of the ways they’ve shifted income taxes to non-education programs and projects. In the coming few years, Utah will finally enter a period when the income tax guarantee for education will have meaningful impact, forcing legislators to either appropriate more money to education or to cut the income tax if they really don’t think schools need the money.

But Utahns feel strongly that schools do indeed need the money. They’ve long expressed their desire to have a greater focus on education funding, repeatedly answering surveys with a willingness even to raise taxes to accomplish that. This is an opportunity to significantly increase education investment without a tax increase, just by allowing the constitutional guarantee to operate like it should. Now is precisely not the time to remove the guarantee.

In recent years, through concerted effort by state and local school boards, teachers and administrators, and with good policies crafted by the Legislature and Gov. Gary Herbert, we’ve seen improvements in national test scores, graduation rates and other important measures of success.

We’re moving the needle on school performance, but we also have significant and growing challenges. As Utah has become a magnet for jobs and population growth, we welcome the richness of new cultures, yet we aren’t always serving the needs of all our kids as well as we could. Tests show that Utah has large gaps in educational outcomes between rich and low-income children, native English speakers and immigrants, white and ethnic minority students. These gaps show that there is much more to do to level the playing field for all of our kids.

I’ve worked for years on education reform, and I’ve seen us make great progress. But the job isn’t done, and there is so much more to do. Let’s not throw away this gift that prosperity is bringing us. Let’s allow the current tax system to result in significant investment in our schools, which will only improve the great quality of life and economic vitality we now enjoy.

Nolan Karras

Nolan Karras is the former speaker of the Utah House of Representatives. He’s been a leader in education in Utah for decades as the former chair of the Utah Board of Regents, former chair of the Governor’s Commission for Educational Excellence, a leader in the Our Schools Now campaign and current chair of the Weber State University Board of Trustees.