Commentary: Vote no on Constitutional Amendment G

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Students raise their hands in full classroom of 32 students in a Spanish class at South Jordan Middle School Monday Feb. 1.

Speaking as one voice on one of the most contentious current issues, the Utah Citizens' Counsel (UCC) — a nonpartisan group with extensive public policy experience — urges defeat of Utah Constitutional Amendment G in the November election.

Amendment G poses a question: Should your income tax dollars continue to fund just public and higher education, or would you be OK diverting some of that money to noneducational purposes. FYI, the Utah Constitution presently requires that your income tax dollars go to public and higher education. Period.

Proposed in flush times, Amendment G was tied to legislative promises that have already proved unattainable. If approved, Amendment G would divert income tax dollars to social service programs supporting children and supporting people with a disability. Sounds like a tough decision, considering that such social services truly merit state support. But passage of Amendment G would further erode Utah’s regrettable halfhearted commitment to public education.

Tinkering with the income tax earmark is not a good idea. It’s extremely difficult to undo constitutional changes, unlike changes to statutes. Considering the uncertainty of our times and how little this proposal has been discussed and how poorly it is understood, voting to remove a constitutional funding guarantee for public education is unwise.

To gain support for Amendment G from the education community, the Legislature promised a significant 6% increase in basic funding for K-12 schools. In light of the large and ominous shortage of qualified teachers, lawmakers also promised millions for scholarships for prospective teachers. Further, they promised an additional $100 million for rainy day funds to better protect public education in bad economic times.

Now, as a result of the pandemic, the promised 6% increase in basic funding was cut to a mere 1.8%, with an assurance that once the economy bounces back, the promised 6% would be restored. Key point: Statuary promises are, in effect, no guarantee. Promises made by one Legislature do not obligate it or any subsequent Legislature to keep those promises.

Caution is key. Recall, as the Great Recession deepened, it took from 2008 until 2019 to return to pre-recession spending levels for public education. In fact, during this time, billions of dollars of general fund money intended for social services were diverted to highway construction. Whoa!

The Legislature should be funding children and people with disabilities from social service money now spent on roads, which are meant to be funded by user fees.

In the mid-1990s, Utah garnered a top 10 rating nationally for its effort to fund public education. Effort is a measure of the percent of personal income spent on public education. Today, Utah ranks 39th among the 50 states. That helps explain how our per-pupil spending is a staggering $5,000 lower than the national average — $7,635 per student compared to a national average of $12,756.

Imagine how increased per-pupil spending could meet pressing educational needs if we just kept income tax revenues for education: improving teacher salaries; reducing the glaring achievement gap experienced by English-language learners and ethnic minorities; introducing high-quality, statewide preschool programs; reducing class size; and boosting support services (nurses, social workers, counselors, paraprofessionals).

Viewing Utah’s educational landscape minus rose-colored glasses, we see a hardworking, devoted and somewhat stressed-out workforce of educators and administrators. And we see thousands of eager students waiting to reignite their education.

Unfortunately, we also see a trail of missed, lost, misunderstood and consistently underfunded public education opportunities. Poorly informed and bad education policy that ignores Utah’s ever-changing demographics and pressing education needs costs our families dearly.

We deserve better. For this reason, come November, the UCC urges a no vote on Amendment G.

Julia D. Miller is a former principal in the Salt Lake City School District. Dixie S. Huefner is a professor emerita, special education, University of Utah. Robert V. Bullough Jr. is a professor emeritus of teacher education and researcher, Brigham Young University and professor emeritus of education studies, University of Utah.