Commentary: Question 1 is a timely, if imperfect, solution to Utah’s education needs

Recently, a woman hiking the Narrows broke both bones in one of her lower legs. This misfortune necessitated immediate medical care involving creative splinting, calls for search and rescue and eventually helicopter extraction. When faced with crisis, we use available resources to address problems instead of waiting for the “perfect” solution. Similarly, we face a critical opportunity to support education funding on this year’s ballot in the form of Question 1.

Here’s why you should vote for Question 1.

Article X, Section 1, of the Utah Constitution directs the Utah Legislature to “provide for the establishment and maintenance of the state’s education systems.” This clearly implies an obligation to adequately fund education, but recent history demonstrates a shocking trend in the opposite direction.

The Utah Constitution also explicitly states that all income tax shall be used for education (Article XIII, Section 5). Due to state income tax law changes in 1995, education funding has been cut $350 million annually through reduced income tax revenue. Then, income taxes were split with Utah’s system of public higher education in 1996, further reducing funds dedicated to educating our young students. We’ve deeply cut income taxes and never honestly made up the difference for education.

More recently, the Great Recession further devastated Utah’s public education system. Utah is one of 29 states where per-pupil education spending in 2015 (most recent available census figures) remained 8.6 percent below 2008 levels. Annual funding increases since have barely kept up with growth in the student population. In today’s booming economy, teachers’ incomes have been eaten away by inflation and the shift of cost-sharing for benefits (like health care) from district budgets to teacher salaries.

A common critique of concerns about Utah’s education spending is this demographic fact: We have larger families and fewer working taxpayers to support them as a consequence. Nevertheless, there was a time when we put more financial effort into educating our young charges. From the 2016 Utah Foundation report on education spending, “Over the past twenty years, Utah’s K-12 education funding effort — or the amount spent per $1,000 personal income — has decreased from seventh highest in the nation to 37th.” Result: “a $1.2 billion reduction of funds available annually for public K-12 education.”

Given the evisceration of education funding over time, little wonder Utah’s class sizes are currently second highest in the nation. It’s no surprise that Utah teachers quit far more often than the national average. By 2015, 56 percent of teachers who started teaching in 2008 had left Utah classrooms. Pay is one complaint, but so are working conditions. Excessively large classes make it impossible to meet each child’s diverse needs effectively.

Here’s where the sausage gets made: The Utah Legislature is taking more than half a billion dollars from sales tax revenue (the General Fund), which has been supplementing the decimated Education Fund, for transportation needs. This is robbing education to pay for transportation. Business and education leaders joined together in the Our Schools Now ballot initiative to force the issue this spring. Legislators came to the negotiating table and hashed out a compromise: Question 1. It asks Utah voters to agree to a 10-cent increase in the gas tax to put money into transportation. The plan is for 70 percent of the money replaced by the new gas tax to be restored to the General Fund, specifically for classrooms under local control.

So let’s be clear: Utah education funding has been drastically cut, and it’s time to fix this.

Would I prefer a clean question asking voters to increase education funding? Of course. But that’s not what legislators agreed to. Will the gas tax be revised because electric and hybrid vehicles don’t pay their fair share? Yes, and the Legislature is already exploring options, but road maintenance won’t wait and students need effective teachers to stay in the classrooms now.

Let’s address the crisis at hand with the compromise we have available, whether or not we think it’s the perfect solution. Vote for Question 1 and tell legislators we really do want better education funding, even if it has to be through their convoluted gas tax question.

Deborah Gatrell

Deborah Gatrell is a board-certified teacher in Granite School District. Follow her on Twitter @DeborahGatrell1 or email her at deborah.gatrell@hsgfellow.org to continue the conversation.