Educational excellence is essential to our long-term social and economic recovery from the pandemic. However, Utah’s public education was slipping long before that pandemic.
Fewer than 25% of Utah’s graduating seniors meet American College Testing benchmarks for college readiness in the combined subjects of English, reading, math and science. Our high school graduation rate has increased but lags behind the national average when broken out by ethnic groups.
Utah is among the worst 10 states for a growing achievement gap between white students and Hispanic, Native American, African-American students, and children in poverty.
We have serious problems recruiting and retaining good teachers, which are both crucial to educational excellence. The number of counselors, social workers, paraprofessionals and nurses is woefully inadequate as are services for at-risk K-12 students, and dealing with pandemic-related challenges.
How is Amendment G being promoted?
By a 1946 constitutional amendment, all income tax revenue was dedicated to public education. Lawmakers rightly note that income tax revenue has recently been growing faster than sales tax revenues. However, despite seriously underfunding education for years, they now insist that it has more revenue than it needs.
So, the 2020 Legislature proposed Constitutional Amendment G for us to vote on this November, allowing programs for children and individuals with disabilities to be funded from income tax revenues. Presumably, the public will naturally be sympathetic to more money for these groups.
Amendment G has been promoted to the education community by tying it to HB 357, which takes effect only if the amendment passes. This statute promises to fund annual K-12 enrollment growth and inflation increases; moves basic K-12 funding to the Uniform School Fund, which is protected for public education; allows for expanded use for operational purposes of revenue raised through local levies and provides for a protected, additional rainy day fund for education.
Many in the education community appreciate these promises of substantially more money. Yet, in a special session this summer, lawmakers already felt the need to reduce the 6% increase in 2020-21 basic appropriations for schools to 1.8% due to economic problems from the pandemic.
Why vote No?
The above statute — unlike a constitutional amendment — is no guarantee of anything, because no legislature can bind a future legislature.
If passed, this flawed Amendment G will allow use of income tax revenues for numerous noneducational programs. Moreover, once embedded in the state constitution, any future change will be prohibitively difficult.
Amendment G is simply a way to avoid the real problem of underfunded schools and underfunded services for children and the disabled.
Immediately after WWII, Utah citizens dedicated all income tax revenue to public education, enshrining it as their top priority. However, subsequent tax rate changes have produced losses in income tax revenue and limited school funding from property taxes.
In 1996, a constitutional amendment allowed income tax revenue to be shared with higher education. It was supposed to free up funding for social services, but the savings went mostly to road construction.
The losses in public education revenue are reflected in measures of taxpayer effort, an indication of a state’s commitment to public education. In the early and mid-1990s, Utah was ranked in the nation’s top 10 states in K-12 expenditures as a percent of personal income. It is now ranked 39th. Per-pupil spending is currently $5,000 lower than the national average.
Between 1997 and 2018, the revenue loss for public education has averaged a staggering $1.2 billion per year.
The legislature seeks more money for social services, which is a worthy goal. However, rather than increase and reallocate sales tax revenues for those services, it wants to rob Peter (education) to pay Paul (social services).
Lawmakers have lacked the political will to shift hundreds of millions of dollars of road construction from sales tax revenues to user fees, which are supposed to be the source of road construction. They also have failed to broaden the tax on consumer purchases of services, although those constitute an ever-growing percent of sales compared to purchase of goods. Taxing more services would allow sales tax revenue to grow appropriately.
Although the Utah Education Association is currently “not opposing” Amendment G, a primary backer of the 2018 “Our Schools Now” initiative — Rich Kendell — has recently announced his opposition to Amendment G.
Despite the efforts of our hard-working, under-paid educators, Utah education is slipping. Poorly informed and bad education policy has cost the state, its families and children dearly. That is why, come November, Utahns should vote “No” on Constitutional Amendment G.