LOGAN—Coordinators of the <a href=”https://ourschoolsnow.com/”>Our Schools Now</a> initiative held seven public meetings throughout the state on Tuesday evening. One of these meetings took place at Hillcrest Elementary School in Logan, where an active dialogue took place about Utah’s public education funding.
Austin Cox, campaign manager of Our Schools Now, said the town hall discussions were designed to introduce communities representing each of Utah’s 41 school districts to a proposal developed by business leaders and educators to increase the state income tax as an investment in educational performance improvement.
“We feel they went very well,” Cox said of the meetings. “We had over 400 attendees (in total) at the seven meetings throughout the state, and a majority of comments that were made were in support of Our Schools Now.”
The Our Schools Now initiative calls for a ½ of 1 percent (.005) increase to the state sales tax and a ½ of 1 percent increase to the state personal income tax, which would boost funding for publication education by $700 million. The added revenue would provide each Utah school with nearly $1,000 per enrolled student to be administered locally and allocated “in ways that increase student learning.”
Cox said the meeting in Logan, representing Utah’s Bear River region, was the second highest attended meeting in the state. The region includes the Cache County, Logan City, Box Elder County and Rich County school districts.
“We really feel that the community there is supportive of public education,” Cox said. “In fact, one gentleman up in Logan attended the meeting as being not supportive, and once he heard the aspects of the Our Schools Now plan, he left as a supporter. We had people at that meeting that left having volunteered to gather signatures later this summer as we try to qualify this initiative for the (November 2018) ballot.”
Our Schools Now must gather 113,143 signatures from at least 26 of Utah’s 29 state Senate districts to put the initiative before voters next year. Steve Norton, superintendent of the <a href=”https://www.ccsdut.org/”>Cache County School District</a>, said he supports the initiative and spoke in its favor on Tuesday.
“It’s just really gratifying to, I think, all of us in education, to know that there were people out there in the business community who saw the need to try and increase the amount of money going into the public school system in the state of Utah, and so I was just delighted to be able to tell teachers that there are people out there…who had looked at the situation and decided it was time to make an investment.”
Norton said he’s also thankful for a system that allows the public to vote when the Legislature has not “accepted that responsibility of funding public ed to the level that I think it should be funded.”
“I’m grateful that the initiative provision is in our Constitution, and it will be interesting to see it play out and see what happens when the people of the state of Utah are given the opportunity to vote,” he said. “Now, I’m a real firm believer that throwing money at public education is not the answer, but investing money in education in the areas that we know will make a difference is a wise investment.”
One concern expressed by the <a href=”https://www.utahtaxpayers.org/”>Utah Taxpayers Association</a> on its website is that Our Schools Now does not clearly demonstrate the wisdom of which Norton speaks.
“Utah taxpayers already provide more than $4 billion annually to our public education system, and an increase of this magnitude without a sound, detailed proposal to help Utah’s students achieve the best outcomes will not be the most effective utilization of taxpayer dollars,” the association’s response reads. “To ask taxpayers for additional money without this type of comprehensive plan in place, and say, ‘trust us’ with such a significant amount of increased money is dangerous. More controls need to be in place to ensure that desired student outcomes are achieved and that all Utah students receive a quality education.”
Billy Hesterman, vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association, said Our Schools Now is simply too ambiguous.
“What we’re concerned about is this is adding additional money to the status quo. If the public education system is going to come to taxpayers asking for a 700 to 865 million dollar tax increase, it needs to come with a plan that’s going to shake things up and bring about higher student outcomes, better results for our teachers, things that are going to make a difference. As the plan is right now, it appears to us that it’s simply moving the money down the chain, continuing what we’re doing, but adding more money into it.”
Curtis Benjamin, director of <a href=”http://www.myuea.org/about_uea/uniservlocal_affiliates/northern_uniserv.aspx”>Northern Utah UniServ</a>, an affiliate of the <a href=”http://www.myuea.org/”>Utah Education Association</a>, sees the proposal differently.
“For me, I think this could be a game changer,” he said. “Because we’ve adjusted the tax structure the way we have over the last couple of decades, we’ve not seen the money that could be flowing to education…and I think, ‘What could it do if we could have the necessary, adequate funding students deserve and that our teachers need?’ It could move the needle at least a little bit to pull Utah off the bottom.”
Dr. Sylvia Read, a member of the School of Teacher Education and Leadership department in the College of Education and Human Services at Utah State University, shares a similar perspective. Speaking as a parent and former elementary school teacher, Read said she has an understanding of education and the pressures on teachers and school districts. Read is most concerned about large class sizes in Utah, the de-professionalization of teachers and the impact on students when teaching to standardized testing reduces opportunities for a well-rounded education. She appreciates efforts to make improvements.
“We have good goals,” she said, “but we can’t do them on a shoestring. I’m very much for whatever we can do to have our schools be better funded and to have teachers’ work be more respected. I think it’s great when there’s agitation in favor of improving life for children and teachers, but especially children. They’re the most vulnerable.”
Having studied successes in other districts, states and even countries, Norton said the things that need to be done to raise achievement in public education are simple but profound—having high standards for students, paying teachers well, investing in professional development and investing in students who are struggling.
“If the money that would come in from this proposal would be spent by schools and districts to meet those criteria, then I think it would be an investment that people would look back at in the future and say, ‘That was the best money ever spent in the state of Utah,’” he said. “If they don’t spend the money in those areas, then I think we’ll get through the whole process and we’ll look back and say, ‘Wow, that didn’t seem to make much difference at all.’”