Darlene McDonald: Playing the zero-sum game in Utah education

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students and teachers from East High School, walk out of school to protest the HB15 voucher bill, on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023.

In her best-selling book, “The Sum of Us,” author Heather McGhee describes the zero-sum game as “a way of seeing the world as a fixed pie of wellbeing. If one group gets a bigger slice, another group gets a smaller one. It’s a model that says we’re not all on the same team.”

A zero-sum is a situation in which one person’s gain is equivalent to another’s loss, so the net change in wealth or benefit is zero. Throughout her book, McGhee points to this zero-sum theory as the reason that keeps Americans from doing big things such as supporting universal health care and adequately funding public education.

While the most memorable portions of the book highlights how racism drained public pools, it’s her chapter on access to high-quality public schools that’s a must read after Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed HB215 into law.

Most Americans understand that public education is funded by taxpayers. Few people understand the specifics. Funding for public school districts primarily comes from state (i.e., sales tax, income tax) and local tax revenue (i.e., property tax), with less than 10% of funding coming from federal funds. HB215′s Utah Fits All vouchers will be funded by the Income Tax Fund. That funding comes from taxes on intangible property, the corporate franchise tax, income taxes and from federal grants and programs.

Historically, as McGhee’s noted, the way public schools are funded created inequitable school financing due to the history of redlining and the racist perception that links good schools to white neighborhoods. Well-resourced and high-performing public schools were in neighborhoods where most families, and particularly families of color, were priced out.

With the passage of HB215, Utah became the third state to pass a law that allows it to use public funds to pay for private school. This was the final piece required in the decades-long effort to finally legalize states’ ability to use public funds for private religious schools.

In June, 2022, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his majority opinion in the Carson v Makin decision, that the “ruling does not require states to fund private schools—but once they do so, they may not exclude religious schools.” HB215 fulfills that requirement. HB215 allows states to use public funds for private schools and thus sets it up to use public funds for private religious schools.

Before the 1954 Supreme Court’s Brown v Board of Education decision, schools in America, primarily in the South, were segregated. After that ruling schools were forced to desegregate. This was a slow process. White families withdrew their children from public schools and enrolled them into private schools. Most were operated by churches.

Between 1954 and 1964, 450 laws and resolutions were enacted in Southern states to hold back forced desegregation. While none of the new laws specifically mentioned “race” or racial segregation, each had the effect of obstructing Black students from attending all-white public schools. These laws were eventually invalidated by federal courts and ultimately the effort was abandoned by Southern states.

In 2016, that effort was invigorated with the election of President Donald Trump, the establishment of an ultra-Conservative Supreme Court and the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd.

In 2022, Chief Justice Roberts gave conservative states what they’d been waiting for and, in 2023, many rushed to push voucher bills that met the requirements he’d laid out for them. Utah proved to be no exception.

In a state like Utah, where 61% of the population identifies as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and gerrymandered districts gave the Legislature a veto-proof and initiative-proof supermajority, it’s not unreasonable to predict what private schools would soon look like — fully funded by Utah’s taxpayers.

Derek Monson, the vice president of the Sutherland Institute, says, “we ought to view HB215 as proof of Utah’s intent and habit of rising above political and ideological divisions to enact policy solutions that serve the common good.”

That may be true in many cases in Utah politics, but HB215 is a demonstration of how extreme political and ideological divisions result in harmful policy solutions that serve a private good.

Darlene McDonald

Darlene McDonald, South Salt Lake, is a writer and director of 1Utah Project.