Heidi Matthews: Righting the ship of Utah public education funding

Utah public education spending is no longer at the bottom of the list.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Heidi Matthews, president, Utah Education Association makes a comment about the new Utah School Safety Commission during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol, Thursday, March 1, 2018.

The aircraft carrier of education funding in Utah is turning! A ship of this size takes “all hands on deck” to initiate a change of motion. It’s clear our funding trajectory is on an incredible path that will most assuredly steer us to increased student success.

The evidence is found in the yearly tracking of education dollars. The recently released NEA Rankings and Estimates Report shows Utah is no longer last in the nation for per-pupil funding. We passed Idaho. Utah’s growth in per-student funding from 2019 to 2020 ranked eighth in the nation. Even more incredible, Utah ranked fourth in the nation for increased average teacher salaries. We still have the distinction of class sizes among the highest in the country, but the changing direction is exciting.

We applaud the collaborative efforts of legislators, educators, parents, school board members and others working on behalf of students to make this happen.

And, make no mistake, money does matter in our schools.

In my 30-plus years as an educator, I have lived the impact of education funding. Bottom line, I am able to be my best version of my teacher-self when I am in a well-funded school.

Funding is the difference between having 25 students in my classes versus 44. As an English teacher, the larger class size means about three hours more grading time per class period for each assigned essay. Multiply that by six classes and the additional students require 18 hours extra grading time per writing assignment.

Education funding means increasing the number of school psychologists from the current one for each 1,950 Utah students to the recommended one per 500 students, making counselors available to tend to the social and emotional health of students, especially in a crisis, like maybe a global pandemic.

Funding our schools means trained and reliable adult support professionals, especially in classrooms of special needs students and English language learners. Underfunding creates high school employee turnover and results in underqualified, underpaid, underinsured (or not at all) essential professionals in our schools.

Education funding translates into opportunity, access, field trips, technology, science experiments, project-based learning, rich curricular options, language immersion — and above all the motivating, experienced, and highly qualified educators making this all happen in our schools.

Funding our schools means our young scholars are not learning on an empty stomach. It means time and training for fair discipline policies that do not disproportionately impose negative impact on some student groups. It means flexibility and care for our families to be able to connect with teachers.

To keep our education funding ship moving in the right direction, our legislators must ensure funding from the American Rescue Plan go toward addressing urgent needs for our students. During the upcoming special session of the state Legislature, the most important investment our legislators can make in our students’ success is in the adults who teach and guide them. Our legislators have an opportunity to support students and educators by imposing no constraints on the Rescue Plan funds and allowing locally elected school boards in each school district to make the investments they know will have impact on the students they serve.

Teachers, parents, school support staff, administrators, legislators, school board members and others all play a pivotal role in providing the best education possible for Utah’s public school students. And money does matter. Let’s work together to continue the trajectory of turning the huge ship of education funding in Utah in the direction of students. Investing in our educators so they can invest in our students will certainly deliver the greatest returns.

Heidi Matthews | UEA president

Heidi Matthews is a junior high school media teacher elected to represent public school educators as president of the Utah Education Association.

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