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Utah trails on education funding, and Amendment G could change that

SHARE Utah trails on education funding, and Amendment G could change that

Martina Gehrig works with a couple of students in person and online at J.E. Cosgriff Memorial Catholic School in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 22, 2020.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

I have been asked many times why so many of the groups that usually strongly advocate for education are strongly advocating for Amendment G. I don’t want to speak for other leaders, but I do want to tell you what I have seen that might explain this.

Having income tax dedicated to education in the constitution has been a point of pride for the education community, but it has not been a protection for education funding — if it was, a state very socially committed to education would not be at the bottom of the list of dollars actually spent on education.

Education groups in the past have zealously defended the idea of dollars being constitutionally protected in the past, but all of the discussions around tax reform in the last year have laid bare what has actually been happening. Specifically, we have learned that income tax dollars are being used all over the budget map through income tax credits to corporations and individuals. This is all perfectly legal because those dollars never make it into the income tax/education fund.

Income tax dollars can only be dedicated to education once they are actually in the fund. Dollars diverted from the income tax/education fund can be used everywhere. In other words, the education community has learned that the constitution sets education as a priority for the state, but priorities can be, and have been, ignored. What is needed is not just the ideological priority the current constitutional provides, but a fiscal priority in the budget. That is what HB357 does and why the education community is so firmly behind it.

Amendment G seeks to change the wording of Article XIII, section 5, subsection 5 of the Constitution of Utah, which currently says, “All revenue from taxes on intangible property or from a tax on income shall be used to support the systems of public education and higher education as defined in Article X, Section 2.” That’s it — the whole thing. Amendment G would add “and to support children and to support individuals with a disability” to that section.

The current wording does guarantee that public education has a source for revenue (income taxes). However, it obviously does not guarantee how well education will be funded. It tells us that public education has access to a bank account, but it does not tell us how much is going to be deposited into that account.

The additional language from Amendment G will establish that children and individuals with a disability will also have an additional source of revenue — but, similarly, they will not be guaranteed any additional dollars. The constitution should be a place where our highest ideals are enshrined. Priorities are defined in the constitution. Ideas are defined in the constitution. Budgets, however, are determined by annual statutes.

A statutory guarantee of actual funding for education — actual increasing dollars — is better than a constitutional guarantee of access to an account with an ambiguous balance. 

Voting for Amendment G is a vote for a good-faith effort by multiple parties to create something the state has never had — a stable and predictable system for funding public education into the future. Voting against Amendment G is actually a vote for the status quo, which is generally agreed upon by all parties to be insufficient.

Priorities are defined in the constitution. Ideas are defined in the constitution. Budgets, however, are determined by annual statutes.

Unfortunately, all of that is not in the ballot language, because amending the constitution is very tricky. The language has to be so precise. In contrast, the funding mechanisms for education in Utah have become so complicated that even pointing you to the language of HB357 and HB5011 will likely not give you a very clear picture of what is happening here. Probably the best evidence that Amendment G is a good idea is who is supporting it — again, the UEA (teachers), the PTA (parents), the state’s school superintendents, the state’s school boards. These are people that work very hard to get more money into education. Amendment G is very important to all of them, and they know what they are talking about. 

However, many education leaders have learned a lot in the past year as a steady drip of information has been squeezed out of the legislature through their tax reform process. This understanding has explained to many of us why we have arrived at the bottom of the educational funding list while relying on the current constitutional provisions.

We have been at the bottom for a very long time. Something has to change. Many of the people who have the most experience with how education is currently funded are very supportive of trying something new. We should listen.

McKay R. Jensen is the president of the Utah School Boards Association, a member of the Provo City School District Board of Education, and the chairman-elect of the Mountainland Technical College Board of Trustees.