Gail Miller: Tax reform should not take money from Utah schools

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Teachers Cherise Bateman, left, and Harmony Kryger attend the tax reform task force meeting at the Utah Capitol on Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, where teachers turned out in large numbers to oppose any weakening of guarantee for public education funding.

The Utah Legislature’s task force on tax reform presented its plan to change income and sales taxes in an effort to balance the needs of education and other programs in the state budget. While I applaud legislators for working hard to find solutions to these issues, and I believe their intentions are sincere, I am concerned that the proposal will place our students and education systems at risk in the future.

For nearly 90 years, Utah has placed all income taxes into a special fund to be used only for education. This is the entire reason the state income tax exists. It was passed by voters in 1930 for this specific purpose. This guarantee of funding recognizes that education is Utah’s top priority, both in word and deed.

I get it. Voters passed a Medicaid expansion last year, roads and other infrastructure projects need to be built to accommodate our growing population, air quality needs to be addressed. and a host of other programs are also important to our quality of life. But does anyone really believe we’re being forced to spend too much on schools? Certainly not the vast majority of Utahns. With all the issues our growing economy faces, this isn’t the time to talk about cutting the education fund.

We have struggled as a state to adequately fund education. Our per-pupil funding for public schools is just barely over half the national average. We have nearly the largest K-12 class sizes in the nation. Less than half of our public school students – at every grade level – are proficient in reading, math or science. Almost half of our teachers leave the profession within the first five years of entering the profession.

The Governor’s Commission on Educational Excellence developed a long-range plan for education with specific funding goals. Legislative leaders, along with many others, contributed to that plan. Shouldn’t that be the guideline for future revenue decisions for education?

Our governor and Legislature should be congratulated for their continued investment in education. But despite all the money that has gone to education, almost all of it has gone to covering the growth in new students in our schools and inflation. Over the last 20 years, we’ve barely moved the needle in per pupil spending on an inflation adjusted basis. That means we haven’t had the resources necessary to invest in what we know works – professional development and fair compensation for teachers, early education, making sure students are proficient in reading, math and science from an early age and additional counselors to guide our students to success.

For me, the bottom line is that nothing will keep our economy growing more than our investment in education. It’s the right thing to do for our economy, for our businesses and for our families. We should leave our Utah Constitution alone and invest in the long-range education plan that so many good people took so much time to develop.

Putting our children first is a good place to start.

Gail Miller

Gail Miller is a Salt Lake City businesswoman and co-chair of Our Schools Now.