Do you feel it? The winds have shifted. As teachers, we’ve sometimes felt like a lone voice in the wilderness calling for increased investments in public education … sounding a warning that if we didn’t reverse trajectory on education funding, the consequences would be dire.

It’s now dire. Utah’s per-pupil public education funding is the lowest in the nation at 57 percent of the national average and is down 5.6 percent from its 2008 pre-recession level. Prior to the mid-1990s, Utah ranked in the Top 10 for its tax effort to fund education, but has since slipped well below average. As a result, Utah classrooms have grown to be among the nation’s most crowded, school districts are struggling to keep classrooms staffed with qualified teachers and Utah students are being academically outperformed by students in states with similar demographics.

The results are no surprise to teachers. We’ve watched class sizes creep up and student resources dwindle for years. Despite our best efforts in the classroom, the lack of funding that has long-plagued our classrooms shackles our ability to provide the education we know our students deserve.

But we are alone no more. Winds of hope are blowing from new directions. Seeing the dire situation facing Utah’s students, many are now joining us in sounding a warning bell. The community is recognizing the important role of public education and calling for increased investment:

  • Prosperity 2020, an organization led by political and business interests, released a report last fall calling for a $600 million infusion into education over five years.
  • Gov. Gary Herbert followed with a proposed FY2016 budget that recommends increasing state public education spending by $343 million, including a 6.25 percent bump in the WPU, the largest in a quarter-century.
  • The Salt Lake Chamber supports the governor’s budget. “The business community deeply appreciates the governor’s leadership in proposing this investment in Utah’s future workforce,” said president and CEO Lane Beattie in a press release.
  • Business leaders are calling for tax increases. Zion’s Bank President and CEO A. Scott Anderson said, “Languishing as the state that spends the least per pupil in the country won’t propel us into the Top 10. I don’t believe we can get there without a tax increase for education” (“Taking Utah into Top 10,” Jan. 23).
  • The Utah Citizens’ Counsel, a group of seniors with broad public policy experience, is asking legislators to restore lost education funding by increasing the flat income tax rate.

Never in recent memory have so many voices been so resoundingly behind the call to properly fund education. Prosperity 2020 Chairman Alan Hall said it well: “It appears that Utah is at a remarkable point of consensus supporting an investment in Utah’s education. With this consensus, we are confident that Governor Herbert and the Legislature will work together to fund Utah’s continued economic prosperity.”

I appreciate Mr. Hall’s optimism, but have reason for concern. While many legislators are supportive, I hear some grumbling that it’s just too hard … that Utahns are unwilling to bear the full financial responsibility of adequately educating our children … that the state’s resources are better used elsewhere or squirreled away for some rainy day.

To these legislators I say, the children of Utah have languished for far too long! The winds have changed. The time is now.

Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh is president of the Utah Education Association and Utah's 2009 Teacher of the Year.