This is an extraordinary time. No one recognizes that more than the public school educators, who adjusted on the fly to continue teaching our students. We continue to worry about student learning loss, their social and emotional health, their safety and the impact of racial injustices on our students of color.
Adapting to a distance learning model was necessary and provided some degree of learning continuity, but it in no way is an adequate replacement for the daily personal interaction between the student and a highly qualified teacher in a well-resourced classroom. This model also exposed systemwide inequities based on socioeconomic status and race that are now further intensified by current events.
As an organization of educators, we find it difficult to provide the services our students need without adequate resources. In the current environment, we must step up the resources we’re committing to our students. Yet, Utah legislative leadership asked for cuts. At their request, the Utah State Board of Education and other public education stakeholders provided, albeit reluctantly, scenarios cutting the public education budget by 2%, 5% and 10%. And the legislative subcommittee tasked with public education appropriations approved a recommendation.
The Utah Education Association was invited to share what we would cut, but we elected not to, believing instead that any cuts to public education would be devastating to students. We also believe the legislature has yet to make a case such drastic cuts are necessary.
Following the recent 2020 General Legislative Session, Utah educators applauded state legislators and celebrated the largest public education budget increase in recent memory, up nearly 10% over the current year. Now, these same educators and their students face not only daunting new teaching challenges, but also the prospect of losing the 10% gained and up to 10% beyond that.
We understand Utah faces many challenges and the legislature must make difficult decisions in the weeks ahead. As legislators consider adjustments to future budgets, teachers hope they will keep a few things in mind:
First and foremost, as stated already, any cuts to public education will be devastating to Utah students.
Don’t automatically assume cuts are necessary. We dispute the assumption that the discussion must begin with reducing funds directed to student education. No cuts should be considered until revenue projections are fully understood and every option for backfilling any budget shortfalls has been explored. Use of bonding, rainy day funds, federal assistance and any other potential revenue source or expense deferral must all be considered before making any cuts to public education.
Show your work. We ask for greater budget transparency in this critical time. If we really must make significant cuts, show us why. When you recommend cutting a program or expense, explain the reasons. As teachers, we call it “show your work.”
Public education is not only the future, it powers the present. It is important to recognize that public education employs tens of thousands of professionals and in every county of the state. Money spent on education jobs stays in local communities and has a multiplier effect especially impactful in rural areas. Cuts to education would further slow recovery and inhibit economic development.
Finally, carefully consider proceeding with a change to the Utah Constitution. The significant funding agreement reached earlier this year was a critical component in teacher support for a change in the Utah Constitution that would give legislators budgeting flexibility but would reduce the percentage of income tax dedicated to education. The legislature currently plans to put that change to a vote of the people in November. Any funding reductions should be coupled with consideration whether it is prudent to move forward with a constitutional change at this time.
We remain hopeful none of the recommended drastic cuts will be necessary and the legislature may even restore some or all of the public education funding increases approved during the general session. Much will depend on projected revenue numbers, the legislature’s budgeting creativity and their will to address the needs of Utah’s children.
The COVID-19 crisis and racially charged recent events underscore the tremendous needs and inequities facing Utah’s students and public schools. Education is continually a top priority for Utahns. We ask legislators to be forward thinking and fund our schools to meet the increased needs students, teachers and all school personnel will face this fall.
Heidi Matthews is a junior high school media teacher elected to represent public school educators as president of the Utah Education Association.