SALT LAKE CITY — Gail Miller was in a familiar place Tuesday when she visited Washington Elementary School to promote a major new initiative promoting additional taxpayer funding on behalf of Utah students.
"I just grew up a half-block from here. … I can very clearly remember being in second grade in this school, and what I was learning, and how I felt," she said.
Miller, owner and chairwoman of the Larry H. Miller Group and one of the most accomplished alums ever to walk through the halls of Washington Elementary, presented her best case Tuesday for a 0.875 percent state income tax increase to be dedicated to education.
"I know that I am not alone in worrying about the future of our children," Miller said, touting the importance of cultivating a highly educated workforce statewide. "In Utah, we pride ourselves on making the hard decisions now in order to ensure the future vitality of our state."
Miller was one of several business leaders on hand for the launch of Our Schools Now, a campaign to create a ballot initiative in time for November 2018 asking voters if they're willing to bump their state income taxes from 5 percent to 5.875 percent in order to add about $744 million to the coffers of Utah schools, colleges and universities each year.
The campaign was welcomed by a small contingent of second-graders, who wore shirts suggesting what they wanted to grow up to be one day: FBI agent, construction worker, doctor, Jazz dancer, art teacher, builder and even "space scientist." After praising the ambition reflected on the students' shirts, Schools Now officials made their pitch for the tax increase.
"Utah’s parents, teachers and employers see a need for an increase of support for our schools," said Zions Bank President and CEO Scott Anderson, who co-chairs Our Schools Now with Miller and retired Questar CEO and Chairman Ron Jibson.
"There is simply not enough money to achieve the performance improvement necessary to significantly increase better outcomes for our children. … We can no longer be last in the nation for per pupil spending and continue to expect our economy to grow," Anderson said.
The campaign says polling this fall indicated 67 percent of Utahns are in favor of including a ballot initiative, allowing voters to decide whether to pass a tax increase on behalf of education. Bob Marquardt, the chairman, president and CEO of Management & Training Corpo. and one of several dozen members of the campaign's steering committee, said the campaign will gather 100,000 signatures by the summer of 2017 in order to place the issue on the ballot the following year.
Lane Beattie, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, is also on the steering committee of Our Schools Now. He said Utah business leaders are currently prioritizing the education of their workforce more than any time in history.
"This (tax) use has the business community's support. … We can have the best educated workforce in the country," Beattie said.
He added that employees with sufficient training and skills are "critical to the future of this state" and that the movement to more adequately fund schools "is a movement in the state of Utah, not just a one-time (push)."
"It will change to the ability to affect those children you all just saw here," Beattie said, referring to the second-grade choir.
Despite the diverse contingent of organizations supporting the measure, at least one taxpayer group raised questions Tuesday.
"We're concerned. … What does that mean for the economy, what does that mean for business, what does that mean for families" to see an increased tax burden? asked Billy Hesterman, vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association.
Hesterman clarified that he was still learning more about the details of the proposal, but he said he is worried it could unnecessarily compress workers' earning potential.
Hesterman said he wants to feel more confident that money currently set aside for schools "still gives our students the best education possible but perhaps gets that done in a more cost-efficient way." He pointed to a broader re-evaluation of the nine-month school calendar, as well as technology that can "lessen the demand or load that's placed on teachers."
Nolan Karras, former Republican speaker of the Utah House and another member of the Our Schools Now steering committee, said at Tuesday's presentation that recent increases in education funding have been mostly absorbed by inflation and the financial demand associated with a growing number of students.
Utah Foundation, a research group cited by the campaign, has concluded that about $110 million has been added to the K-12 education budget annually over the past five years. But the foundation also said about $88 million of that figure is canceled out because of inflation and increased enrollment.
The remaining $22 million per year average equates to $30 per year per student, Karras said, adding, "This is not enough."
"Constantly underfunding education has the potential to undermine the foundations of our economy and our society," he said.
Utah Foundation's research concludes K-12 funding has seen an average annual reduction in funding of between $1.2 billion and $1.6 billion since the mid-1990s because of various tax cuts, funding diverted to higher education and other policy changes.
"The cumulative impact of that number is huge," Karras said.
Our Schools Now says Utah Foundation's research has also indicated Utah, which ranks last among the 50 states in education spending per pupil, would need to up its K-12 education spending by 70 percent — or roughly $2.9 billion per year — to meet the national average in that metric.
Miller believes the proposed income tax hike would go a long way in breathing life into school funding in Utah, largely because the new funding would be utilized directly by school districts, universities and charter schools. Because of that, the money can then be used where it's most urgently needed, she said.
"It doesn't go to the administrations, it goes to the students," Miller said.
Children like the "bright-eyed" second-graders who sang Tuesday, Miller said, are ultimately the inspiration behind the push for more funding.
"How can you look at them and say, 'Not this year?'" she asked.
The Our Schools Now website lists specific estimated funding increases for each school, charter school, technical college and public university throughout the state.