Last week I sat at a “Our Schools Now” table at my kids school during parent-teacher conferences gathering signatures for a petition. You may have seen something on Facebook or received an email about Our Schools Now but if you are like me, you clicked past it without putting much thought into it. Well, during the three hours I manned the table, I read the “Teachers and Students Act” that outlines what this organization is seeking, talked to parents and teachers about their thoughts, and worked out my own opinion. I wanted to share some of the things I have learned with you.
What is Our Schools Now?
Short answer: It is a citizen initiative to raise income and sales tax and put the proceeds directly into an account that will be used for education in the state of Utah.
Reading that probably brought one of two reaction:
- Tax increase? I’m out. -OR-
- Money for schools? I’m in.
But before you form your opinion, let me tell you a bit about the nuts and bolts.
The details; This initiative is written in the form of a bill that can be found here. Because not everyone loves reading legislative-ease, I will translate.
- A sub-fund will be created within the state education fund entitled “Teachers and Student Success Restricted Account”.
- The account will be funded through two tax increases:
- For the taxable year beginning January 1, 2019, the state income tax rate will increase from 5% to 5.45%
- Beginning April 1st, 2019, the state sales tax will increase from 4.70% to 5.15%. (There is a whole list of what falls under the sales tax if you are interested in learning more.)
- Monies in the account can be invested and the profits will be added to the account
- The fund will serve to supplement current education spending- not replace it.
- The fund will be distributed on a local level with local control.
- Decisions about spending will be made in conjunction with a “student success plan”
- Up to 25% of the fund can be used to increase teacher base salaries or benefits for educators. This use of funds could go to hiring new teachers and lower the class size.
- If teachers in a district are paid under the state average, 40% of the fund money received can go to educator benefits.
What Does this Mean to You?
For your student:
Annual projections of the fund distribution to the local level:
Holy Cow Batman! That is a lot of money coming into local schools. Seeing these numbers brings feelings of awe at how much could be done locally to reduce class sizes and increase interventions for all levels of student. At the same time, there is question about why so much money would be needed.
For your pocketbook:
Where did this idea come from?
- A school district in the Salt Lake area was struggling with graduation rates. Local leaders got together and decided to publically fund an initiative that would be focused on increasing these rates. Through their efforts, great progress was rapidly seen. From funding aids whose soul job was to track down students who didn’t show up to schools, increasing funding for helping these kids get to school and giving the teachers more resources to help the students once they made it to school, the impact was quite measurable. This result inspired many leaders in the state to ask why we are not doing the same for all of our school districts.
Why put this forth as a private initiative instead of going through the traditional legislative process?
- These leaders have tried to work with legislators to get the education ball rolling but have been met with less funding per student (totally $1.2 billion less this year). Because raising taxes is never popular and may effect re-election, legislators are not inclined to put forth a significant effort to fund education. The founding members of this initiative decided that if significant change was going to come, it would need to be at the hands of the citizens.
This group seems pretty affluent. Why don’t they just pay for the program?
- While I imagine that many of them would be willing to do just that, the intent of this initiative is to come up with a plan that will be able to continue for years to come. The funds that this group could provide would be significant… for a year or two. But to make a long term difference, it is going to take all of us.
Why is per student spending in Utah the lowest in the country?
- Simply put, because we have so many kids. While the total monies being put towards education might match some other states, when you take into account how many kids live in Utah verses those other states, we are grossly underfunded.
So what? We have great teachers who do a lot without needing all that money.
- That is absolutely true but the downsides of that mentality are larger class sizes, overworked and underpaid teacher leading to a shortage of qualified people to teach our kids. Additionally, the economic state in Utah has created an awesome environment where we have more jobs than we have qualified candidates to fill. We have to recruit outside of the state in order to support our entrepreneurial (and successful) spirit. How great would it be if we could educate our own kids to take on all of these amazing jobs that are available here in Utah? But getting them ready for those jobs is going to take a hirer education system that we are currently offering.
Finally, why so much? Do we really need two separate taxes?
- I can only answer this from my own personal point of view. I don’t think we need two separate taxes. But the reality is that we have to make a choice between potentially overfunding and most certainly underfunding. Legislators have proven, despite their promises, that their tenuous state of election is most certainly going to get in the way of pushing further funding forward. We probably only have one shot at getting a citizen motivated initiative through. Our Schools Now has the names and the money to give us our best shot. If we want to make student success a true priority for our state, I believe that support of this initiative will give us the most hope of doing just that.
What comes next?
- RIGHT NOW: State statute requires petition signatures equating to 10% of the total number of votes cast in the most recent Presidential election. This totals over 113,000 registered voter signatures needed. Additionally, these signatures have to come from at least 26 (of the 29) different senatorial districts in the state. This is a huge under taking! If you are interested in signing, I have access to these petitions and can bring one to you to sign. If enough people are interested, I will set up a time and place to have people come sign.
- After signing, I would suggest contacting your local legislators to let them know that you have signed. If enough signatures are gathered to move this initiative onto the ballot, this may put pressure on the legislature to do something substantial. There is already one congressperson threatening to block the effort with a promise that they can find the funding. Hold their feet to the fire! I’d love to see a significant education bill passed but until I do, my support is going to the tax increase.
- If the Teacher and Student Success Act makes it onto the ballot in November without any movement from our state legislators, I would encourage you to vote yes on this initiative.
- Help others know the details. I learned about this because a friend first learned about it. Word of mouth is going to make all the difference on whether or not education change can occur in our state.