Aaryn Birchell: School funding amendment just doesn’t measure up

The Utah House of Representatives are shown during a special session of the Legislature at the Utah State Capitol Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020, in Salt Lake City. Utah legislators unanimously voted during a special session Thursday in favor of a plan for the November election that includes outdoor voting and additional ballot drop boxes in rural parts of the state. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

I needed a tape measure to help me prepare my small classroom to fit 36 high school students for this unprecedented 2020 school year. Amid all the drama of this year’s pandemic, with school closures, economic hardships, schools reopening and everything else 2020 brought, something just isn’t measuring up.

Did we forget that the very foundation of Utah’s constitutional school funding is up for a vote this November? The Legislature has placed Constitutional Amendment G on the ballot, asking you to weaken the 90-year-old guarantee that our income taxes are dedicated to funding education. Frankly, this amendment is a terrible idea, and I hope you’ll vote no on G.

Even in the difficulty of the Great Depression, Utah’s political leaders and voters recognized that schools needed a reliable, protected source of funding. In a state that places such high priority on raising children, our Utah Constitution reflects that commitment to our children, thanks to the foresight of our forefathers.

Today, the competition for state funds is only more intense and, as educators, we appreciate that the Utah Constitution forces politicians to pay attention to school needs even as they juggle the demands of other programs. As taxpayers, we feel reassured knowing that this portion of our taxes is used to fund the most important thing we do as a society – helping our children learn and grow into capable, confident adults.

Yet as parents, we see that funding is not measuring up with large class sizes along with the difficulty to recruit new teachers, and then retain them when the pay is comparatively low. With the frequent requests for donations of school supplies, we wish our politicians would provide better funding. Goodness, even just adequate funding would be a welcome change.

But apparently, legislators think the income tax has been growing too fast, and schools don’t need that money. They want you to trust them, to believe that they know what’s best as they spend your money on projects and programs they think are higher priorities than investing in education. They call that “flexibility.”

To persuade voters to agree, legislators passed a law that they’re calling a school funding “guarantee,” but it’s nothing like what we have now. It merely says that a budget committee will come up with an adjustment for inflation and student growth and include that number in the initial budget bill each year.

This is more of a symbolic performance than any kind of guarantee. Even more concerning is that the budget bill can easily be amended to reduce those adjustments as it works its way through the process. Plus, they’re only talking about covering the barest minimum of need – inflation and student enrollment growth. This amendment does nothing to press legislators to invest more in actually improving the quality of our schools.

Because the existing education funding guarantee is in the state constitution, all future elected officials are bound by it. But this new so-called promise is a simple statute that could be ignored, changed, or completely repealed anytime by a majority of legislators. Do you trust them with this power?

The bottom line is this: Does anyone really believe weakening the constitutional guarantee for education funding will result in more spending for education? Why would legislators want to scrap the guarantee if they didn’t want to reduce funding growth for education? See? It just does not measure up. Vote no on G!

Aaryn Birchell

Aaryn Snow Birchell teaches English at Uintah High School and is the 2018 Utah Teacher of the Year.