clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

In our opinion: What to consider about proposed tax hikes for Utah schools

A strong argument can be made that Utahns are paying less as a portion of their overall tax bill for education than they were 20 years ago due to a series of changes to the state constitution and the Utah code.
A strong argument can be made that Utahns are paying less as a portion of their overall tax bill for education than they were 20 years ago due to a series of changes to the state constitution and the Utah code.
Adobe stock photo

As the campaign to raise taxes for education commences, we urge the public-education establishment to be specific as to how the extra money — estimated at $744 million to be divided among K-12 and institutions of higher learning — will lead to better outcomes.

Doing so not only would focus the discussion on the things that matter, it would give Utah voters confidence that their extra funding would be meaningful.

Before any discussion gets going, however, the math must be correct.

When business leaders want to push to increase Utah’s flat income-tax rate from 5 percent to 5.875 percent, they are not, as some have said, trying to raise taxes by 0.875 percent. The increase to what Utahns would pay is 17.5 percent.

The difference is important for clarity and transparency, and because schools, where math is taught, are the object here.

That said, we do not oppose the increase, which would be in the form of a ballot initiative in 2018. A strong argument can be made that Utahns are paying less as a portion of their overall tax bill for education than they were 20 years ago due to a series of changes to the state constitution and the Utah code.

Before supporting this plan wholeheartedly, however, Utahns need to ask what they will get in return.

That question can be difficult to answer because individual school districts make their own fiscal decisions, absent any legislative mandates. But the question is by no means frivolous.

Research, after all, reveals a somewhat tenuous connection between increased spending and educational outcomes. But it’s hard to deny Utah's immediate public-school needs and the fact that an extra shot of funding could indeed help.

Chief among these needs is a teacher shortage exacerbated by low salaries.

Yet just haphazardly throwing more money at that problem is unlikely to solve it. The funds must be used strategically.

A recent report by the state auditor compared various teacher salaries with what someone with a comparable degree might earn in the private sector. The results showed some teachers, such as those in physical education, already earning more than they could elsewhere.

Math, computer science and engineering teachers, on the other hand, earn considerably less than they might expect to get in the private sector. It makes sense to offer them something more. Using market principles, school districts could intelligently solve much of the teacher shortage.

Extra money could also help close the so-called “achievement gap” for students from lower-income backgrounds.

The Utah Foundation, an independent research group, released a study this week showing how legislative changes since the mid-1990s have reduced potential funding for K-12 schools by $1.2 billion annually. Not all of those changes have been bad, and some certainly have contributed to the low-tax, business-friendly atmosphere that has put the state at or near the top in various evaluations of the best places to do business. The state’s low unemployment rate — 3.2 percent in October — is evidence of that.

But it is also true that education is a driving force for a continuously successful economy. Utah’s public schools have performed slightly above average in national tests despite the loss of income. However, average should not be considered a metric for success.