Public education issue lingers over gubernatorial campaign

Gubernatorial candidates Chris Peterson (left) and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox (right) have continued to spar over the issue of public education funding during the final days of their race to replace outgoing Gov. Gary Herbert.

SALT LAKE CITY – Although the question of funding for public education has been largely overshadowed by the coronavirus during the gubernatorial campaign, both candidates agree that the issue will continue to be a priority long after the pandemic is over.

Democratic challenger Chris Peterson of Salt Lake City has beat the “per-pupil funding” drum at every opportunity during the campaign.

“Our state has the lowest per-pupil funding in America,” Peterson argued during a recent forum sponsored by the Utah Debate Commission. “Let’s stop trying to compete with New Mexico and Mississippi and start competing with Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts and other states that have the top performing students in America. That’s the future that we want for our kids …

“We have a vibrant, diversified economy and we have the resources in this state to actually fund education for our kids. It’s not the Democratic Party that has failed to do that, it’s the majority party. It’s time for a little more balance and a little more forward thinking to get the job done.”

On the defensive, GOP candidate Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox has been trying to cut through inflammatory campaign rhetoric to clarify issues relating to public education funding.

In Utah, public education receives funding from the state with income tax revenues and from the local level with property tax revenues.

While acknowledging the issue, Cox said the problem with Utah public education funding is two-fold.

First, Utah has the highest number of children per capita in the nation.

Secondly, the federal government controls 70 percent of the state’s land and does not pay market value on property taxes.

Recent statewide polling commissioned by Envision Utah has indicated that that a growing majority of Utahns are willing to invest more in public education funding.

That late September survey of 400 residents by Lighthouse Research found that 78 percent were probably or definitely willing to pay for increased education funding.

But Cox said that money alone isn’t necessarily the solution to the problem of public education funding. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak in mid-March, the state’s income tax revenues had been growing steadily for the past five years as had funds going to public education.

Nor has public education funding suffered as a result of the ongoing pandemic. During its most recent budget-balancing special session, Cox emphasized, the Legislature not only maintained all of its planned funding for education, but also increased that funding by 2 percent for the year to come.

Instead, Cox believes that both the state and local school districts must be more judicious about how their money is spent.

“When we talk about being the lowest state in per pupil funding in the nation, that’s not strictly true,” he argues. “There are several school districts in Utah where the level of per pupil funding is actually well above the national average (when both state and local funding are considered). That may be a surprise to many people.

“The problem is that we have these perverse incentives that say that (local) money can only be used for these new palatial schools and cannot be used for things like paying teachers and ensuring that our children have the supplies that they need. That has to change.”

For example, the Cache County School District passed a $129 million construction bond issue in the past decade. Nearly 70 percent of that amount was earmarked for two new high schools, Ridgeline High School in Millville ($46 million) and Green Canyon High School in North Logan ($42 million).

“We can build more efficient schools and use the cost savings to better educate our children, pay our teachers more and resolve the statewide teacher shortage that we’re facing,” according to the lieutenant governor.

Both candidates agreed that future political debate over the issue of public school funding will likely hinge on the voters’ decision about the fate of Amendment G in the general election balloting on Tuesday.

During the 2020 legislative session, lawmakers negotiated with stakeholders in the education community (e.g. the State Board of Education, the Utah Education Association, the Parent Teachers Association and school district administrators, among others) to obtain their agreement to fund services for children and disabled persons from income tax revenues that have previously been earmarked strictly for education.

The Legislature pledged to balance that change by stabilizing public education funding with guaranteed adjustments for enrollment growth and inflation.

Voter approval of Amendment G will codify that long-term agreement in the Utah Constitution.

Peterson opposes Amendment G while Cox supports that constitutional change.

Cox and Peterson are competing to replace outgoing Gov. Gary Herbert in the general election on Tuesday.

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