Richard E. Kendell: Vote to keep funding promise for Utah schools

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Spanish teacher Luisa Montalvo leads a third grade class in an American rock and roll music dancing session as part of a cultural awareness week at Wasatch Peak Academy in North Salt Lake. The day before they were studying Mexican dance. A new report by the Utah Foundation says that charter schools receive less funding than school district schools, but charter advantages make it difficult to determine if the funding is inequitable.

The Utah Legislature proposed major tax reforms during the last several legislative sessions. Tax reform proposals collapsed and were abandoned or rescinded due in large measure to widespread public resistance.

One element of the tax reform effort remains, namely amending the Utah Constitution to allow for expenditures other than public and higher education from Utah’s Education Fund. This will be listed as Constitutional Amendment G on your November 2020 ballot.

Historically the income tax (which goes to the education fund) has been used exclusively for public and higher education. A vote in favor of the proposed amendment would change that.

This change is proposed because funds going to the general fund are not sufficient to meet current state needs. This problem with the general fund has been caused, in part, by changes in the Utah economy. However, some of the problems have been self-inflicted by legislative action.

State sales tax rates have been reduced, the state sales tax on food has been eliminated and fuel taxes have been held flat. Also, the Legislature created a large earmark on the general fund to pay for roads. The future forecast for the general fund is problematic, hence, the proposal to use education funds for other state purposes.

If funding for Utah schools were adequate, the proposal would make more sense. But Utah schools are poorly funded and, on a per-pupil basis, Utah is last in the nation. Utah has had this dubious distinction for many years. Generally, national reports and rating services give Utah failing grades .

The lack of adequate funding is not without consequences. High school graduation rates have improved in recent years but there is more work to be done. Too many students do not graduate. Student achievement is average when measured by accurate and valid national examinations. Utah’s own standardized testing program reports that less than 50% of students are proficient in math, language arts and science.

Who wants to perpetuate average schools? Compounding the problem is the loss of experienced and well-trained teachers who are leaving the profession in alarming numbers. Poor pay and lack of support are primary reasons.

The achievement gap between students of color and other students is large and showing little or no improvement. Access to and success in higher education is far too dependent on family income.

We need to advance the American Dream of achieving success through education. This is no time to diminish support for one of America’s greatest ambitions.

There are solid strategies for addressing education challenges. For example, every student should have access to quality internet service and a device for instructional use. As more students and teachers move to on-line instruction, a solution is imperative. The pandemic has made this even more urgent.

From early settlements, pioneers considered education a priority. Virtually every budding Utah community supported a school or college. Over time, the income tax was earmarked for education as a symbol of education’s importance and as a guarantee of fiscal reliability. There was wisdom in this then, and there is wisdom now.

Highly educated people is our greatest asset. We cannot and should not have “average” public schools. We must ensure that every student completes high school and pursues a post-secondary education.

A change is the Utah Constitution seems to be an ill-timed and a piecemeal attempt at tax reform.

Vote no on Constitutional Amendment G.

Richard Kendell

Richard E. Kendell, North Salt Lake, is former superintendent of the Davis School District and former Utah commissioner of higher education.