Jeff Saunders: Utah Legislature should not take money away from public education

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) In this Jan. 27 photo, the floor of the Utah House of Representatives is viewed during the Utah legislative session in Salt Lake City.

I am a teacher. This is my 16th year in public education. And I am worried. Public education is under attack by the Utah Legislature.

The Legislature has been complaining for years about a structural imbalance of “surplus” income tax revenues they aren’t willing to spend to help our students and properly fund our schools. They have let almost a billion dollars build up for an education “rainy day” while our state is last in the nation in per-pupil spending.

The Legislature forces our parents and guardians to shell out hundreds and thousands of dollars each year in student fees. They make our students beg for their education by selling candy bars. Our families participate in multiple other fundraisers each year to fund the gaps in our students’ education.

Looking at the almost billion dollars lying around in the education rainy day fund has led our Legislature to become greedy. They want to get their hands on it to spend money on their pet projects, like relocating prisons and giving tax subsidies to developers or planning the inland port.

The latest proposal has the Legislature diverting around $600 million from public education to fund other children’s programs and programs for the disabled. Both are noble causes, but what is nobler than giving the children of Utah a world-class education?

With this “surplus,” Utah could lower class sizes to a max of 25 students per class, eliminate student fees, allow schools to build their own facilities without bonding and increasing our property taxes, pay teachers a livable professional wage with better health and retirement benefits so we attract the best teaching talent in the nation to give our kids a world class education that will prepare them for the jobs for the future.

I didn’t get into teaching to be rich. The draw to teaching used to be working with kids while getting an OK salary with excellent health insurance and state retirement. The excellent health insurance has become high-deductible plans. The state retirement has become self-funded with a meager match on a 401(k), while hardly increasing salary yearly when factoring in inflation.

Meanwhile, class sizes grow. Resources dwindle. And Utah lawmakers wonder why we can’t attract talent to the profession.

The question is not, “Do we have the resources for education?” but, “We do have the resources, but why do we refuse to spend them?”

Why does the Legislature let the education funds build, making rainy day funds for rainy day funds, and now proposing lifting the education earmark on income tax to raid the fund and spend it on anything else?

If they won’t spend the money on education now, what is the guarantee they will spend money on education when it isn’t earmarked for it? The answer is: They won’t. Education funding will decrease and the burden for education will fall to property taxes.

If this constitutional amendment is passed in the Legislature, it will go on the ballot in November. More than 50 percent of Utahns will have to vote for it to take effect.

I urge you to protect public education and call your representatives. Vote no on the constitutional amendment in November. Our educators deserve better. Our kids deserve better.

Jeff Saunders

Jeff Saunders is an educator at Stansbury High in the Tooele County School District.

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