Heidi Matthews: Ending the frustration in public education in Utah

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Teachers from the Salt Lake School District hold a rally at Innovations High School, Tuesday, June 18, 2019.


That’s the feeling I most often hear expressed as I travel around the great state of Utah and talk with teachers.

Frustration about class sizes beyond their ability to provide the individual attention they know their students need. Frustration over outdated and insufficient teaching materials. Frustration that their students face significant inequities based on demographic status as well as growing health and safety needs. Frustration that Utah continues to languish at the bottom of the barrel for per-student spending on public education. Frustration that schools cannot find replacements for fellow educators who have left the profession … in frustration.

The promise from our elected state legislators, who bear the primary responsibility for public education funding, has been that as the state economy grows, so will investments in the education of our students. Yet, our frustration continues as, despite a growing economy, legislators offer tax reform solutions that appear to cut education funding (more than $700 million in the latest proposal).

After several months of tax reform debate and discussion, legislators have yet to articulate a concrete plan or a vision to provide the resources to ensure students’ futures, only a proposal to drastically cut the income tax, which is constitutionally guaranteed for education.

Cutting revenues to public education would be a slap in the face of every educator, every school administrator, every parent who has clung to the promise that our growing economy would at long last yield new investments in our schools.

The whole discussion has me nervous for our students. A report recently released by the Utah Foundation finds that Utah is “falling short of its potential” due to lack of education funding. What student potential are we leaving on the table by having the lowest funded schools in the nation?

It’s no wonder teachers are leaving the profession. It’s no wonder we’re seeing the frustration of those who have chosen to remain in teaching now turning to resolve. They are looking to other states, like Oklahoma, Arizona, West Virginia and Kentucky, where teachers and parents found success in standing united for students. They are showing up at public meetings and wearing #RedForEd. They are feeling the need to act on behalf of the students they serve.

We reject any plan that has a goal to simply “maintain” levels of education funding. Our students have languished at the bottom of the funding barrel for far too long. It’s beyond time for our legislators to step up for our students, to show courage and to address head on the challenges facing our public schools.

To support student success, any tax restructure must do the following:

  • Ensure and protect significant and ongoing investments in school funding. It is not enough to simply maintain education funding. Our students need secure, sustainable and growing education revenue sources.

  • Assure that student needs are met, so that all may learn and thrive. It is hard to learn when you are hungry or in pain. Our students are coming to school with more anxiety and stress that must be addressed. It doesn’t help when taxes are structured in a regressive manner that hurts students in financially vulnerable families.

  • Invest in the root causes of the teacher shortage. Salary is important, but the tax restructure must also provide sufficient resources to address other stress factors driving teachers from the profession and to help them be successful.

Our Utah educators deserve high praise for thus far setting their frustrations aside and having done so well with so little for so long. We see the children in our classrooms and we know what curiosity we could inspire, what dreams we could ignite, if we only had the resources to support all students in fulfilling their potential.

Legislators, our students are counting on you. Don’t make us use our teacher voice!

Heidi Matthews

Heidi Matthews is a Park City junior high school media teacher, elected by public school teachers statewide to serve as president of the Utah Education Association.