Right On: On the fence with tax hike proposed by Our Schools Now

OPINION — Do you believe in quality education but hate tax increases? The initiative proposed by the Our Schools Now group has me on the fence. But it’s likely we’ll all have to jump one way or the other next year.

My interest in public education is longstanding. I chaired the Superintendent’s Citizens Advisory Committee in a large, Midwestern city school district. My wife served as PTA president in our children’s high school. Several of our good friends are high school principals.

Along with about 60 or so others, I attended the Our Schools Now public meeting last week at Legacy Elementary school in St. George.

As described in last week’s St. George News article, an impressive list of 50 Utah business leaders propose a $700 million tax increase initiative to fund improvements in Utah’s K-12 schools and public universities.

Read more: Our Schools Now seeks higher taxes for education. Opponents argue tax hikes never solve the problem. (Video included.)

The initiative, proposing “The Teacher and Student Success Act,” is likely to be on our ballots in 2018.

Voters will be faced with an equally impressive list of reasons to question this initiative.

I smiled when I saw usually conservative business leaders use the word “investment” 13 times in their meeting handout. “Investment” is a politician’s code word for more taxes, more spending.

I shook my head when seniors rose to oppose tax increases of any kind, ever. How would they react if given a choice between higher taxes or significantly reduced Social Security benefits? (That day is coming.)

To see why I’m on the fence, first look at why additional funding can make a difference.

We ask a lot of our public school teachers, maybe too much. With few exceptions, teachers are in the profession because they love kids and want to help them succeed.

We take advantage of them when we provide barely adequate or less-than-adequate salaries.

We take advantage of them when we allow class sizes to grow to the point of unmanageability.

We take advantage of them when we cut back on paid nonclassroom time, time they need to prepare adequately.

We take advantage of them when we fail to pay for needed supplies and for supplemental activities like field trips.

School boards across Utah – and across the country – have taken these and similar steps to balance their budgets. How much is too much? Where do we draw the line?

Now take a look at reasons to be skeptical about raising taxes and increasing spending.

Initiative proponents argue that Utah has a teacher shortage, that openings are unfilled because we don’t offer adequate salaries. No surprise here: As the New York Times explains, the entire country has a teacher shortage. Raising salaries pits us against other states competing for the same limited pool of candidates, what economists call a zero sum game.

As a hard-nosed conservative, I believe teacher salaries and working conditions ought to be “just enough” to attract the number of qualified teachers needed.

The key words in that sentence are “number” and “qualified.” Government organizations don’t face the discipline of free market competition and hence decisions about staffing levels and salaries are of necessity subjective and political. What’s an acceptable class size? Should all teachers have an education degree?

Utah business leaders claim they can’t find enough qualified local graduates to fill their job openings. But the most likely explanation is Utah’s exceptionally strong economy with its increasing number of high tech employees. Silicon Valley job openings have exceeded the number of its local graduates for decades. Does that mean schools there are failing? Or is that a characteristic of a booming economy?

One of the meeting’s attendees offered a creative idea. Businesses could provide scholarships to private schools or funding for specialized programs at public schools: apprenticeships, workshops, factory tours and lending employees as guest instructors.

School funding is complicated by facts and figures seemingly at odds with each other.

Utah is dead last of the 50 states in education spending per student. Education Week gave Utah an overall grade of “C-minus,” 32nd in the country, heavily weighted by that low spending.

But comparing results instead of spending presents a very different picture. The Deseret News reports that Utah came in fifth overall of the 13 states that give the ACT to all of their students. U.S. News and World Report ranked Utah as the ninth best state for education.

Conservatives like me judge government programs by their results, not by their spending. Our overworked teachers – and they are overworked – must be doing a very good job as are the parents of our students.

In 2017, the Legislature appropriated about $4 billion for K-12 education and another $1.56 billion for higher education. While the initiative’s new $700 million is restricted to classroom instruction, the Legislature can do what it wants with today’s $4 billion, even redirecting some funding to noneducation uses if it so chooses. Doing so in the near term would alienate voters but no initiative can bind a future Legislature.

So what does this initiative give us? A near-term boost for teachers and a long-term tax increase.

My heart is with our teachers. My conservative principles favor fiscal discipline. I’ll keep you posted.

Howard Sierer is an opinion columnist for St. George News. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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  • Not_So_Much July 20, 2017 at 8:34 am

    I’m NOT on the fence and it’s a resounding NO to tax increases of any kind. The school system is broken and throwing millions more as a band aid to keep it limping along is not the the direction we as a state should go. A whole new approach which would be better suited to societies needs and the individual as well is needed. Perhaps we need to put students on different career tracks by 15 or 16 based on demonstrated skills and expressed desires. Do I have all the answers? No, but raising taxes will drive jobs and people out of Utah making matters worse. We could start by separating K -12 from higher education and make decisions on those two very unique groups, similar to the way it was previously.
    We can agree there are problems in today’s education system, but let’s not throw good money after bad. It may be $800 a year for the average family this time, but as one of the supporters was quoted as saying “We’ll be back for more.”

  • Not_So_Much July 20, 2017 at 8:43 am

    Have an opinion on these tax increases? Show up and speak up tonight Thursday June 20 promptly at 6 pm at Santa Clara Elementary School 2950 Crestview Drive in Santa Clara. This do over for some unspecified reason which has had no advertising and no mention in the media (with one exception). This is part of the process to get this tax increase for income and sales tax on the 2018 ballot. Most voters still vote yes when “it’s for the children” so this is the time to go on record (just say no) and not let the insiders have only their voice heard.

  • Brian July 20, 2017 at 8:44 am

    Good article and overview of the situation. I feel similarly.

    I’ve seen first hand serious waste in public education (this happens at the administration level, not the teacher level). Personally I favor more charter and private schools, and home schooling, all of which offer far more choice to parents and students. Some of them will suck, some of them will be amazing (the same can be said of public schools, teachers, administrators, businesses, laws, people, products, etc). Opponents of charter schools will only see the ones that suck, and will ignore the ones that are amazing.

    I think the right balance is to keep public schools and funding basically the way it is but increase the charter schools, private schools, and home schooling to the point that class sizes get back down to the mid to low 20’s. (Of course the state can’t and shouldn’t increase home schooling numbers, parents have to choose that, but they can and should stay out of the way and support parents in succeeding with it).

  • Sapphire July 20, 2017 at 9:11 am

    This article missed the mark. There is a reason many are choosing home schooling or charter schools. It has nothing to do with money, and citing spending per student is silly. It has everything to do with how much effort is actually spent teaching instead of relying on props. All tax increases should be broken down into administrative, teacher salary, and other necessary employees such ass librarians, nurses, food staff, custodians, etc., and then those funds should be earmarked specifically for that category and not be allowed to be used anywhere else. The average Utah teacher salary is about $50,000 and starting salary about $30,000 plus benefits. That is a darn good wage in a state where costs are lower than many neighbor states. Teachers aides and volunteers help in the classrooms so the size is irrelevant. Teachers only work 4 1/2 days with students and have a half day for prep with numerous paid holidays and they don’t work in summer. Many teachers leave because they are women who start teaching young and then leave to have families. Too much real information left out in this article.

    • Brian July 20, 2017 at 11:01 am

      I agree with your comment, with the exception of this: “Teachers aides and volunteers help in the classrooms so the size is irrelevant”. Studies have shown that even with aides and volunteers class size does matter. It’s about more than just the ratio of adults to kids in the room. Even with that human behavior changes based on group size, and smaller sizes are more effective (though you can go too small, where each student gets so much attention it actually weakens them intellectually, not unlike the bird needing to have the experience of getting out of the egg on its own).

  • Proud Rebel July 20, 2017 at 10:02 am

    Never, ever trust politicians to do the honorable thing! No matter how this proposed tax hike is billed today, tomorrow they will find a way to dig into it. Even if it means making cuts to the school funding to equal the current tax hike.
    What I’d like to see, is this initiative killed, at this time. And then I’d like to see a study done on the current education budgets for every school district in the state. A comprehensive study that actually brings light to what is going on behind the scenes in these school districts.
    I keep hearing innuendos about how top heavy our own school district is. I’d like to know if it really is top heavy. I’d like to know if the district administration is actively working to conserve dollars, or if they are treating the budget as a cash cow, to fund unnecessary jobs for friends and relatives.
    I keep hearing how the administrative assistants have their own administrative assistants. And if they do, I’d like to know how necessary these jobs are.
    I’d like to know if they are giving clerks a fancy title so they can get around salary caps.
    It’s time for the school districts, all of them, not just Washington County, to have the public spot light shine into their budgets, and their policies.
    Until we can actually know what is going on, I will fight any tax increase, particularly ones that claim to be for “education.” These budgets, these policies, are absolutely our business. We have every right to know these things, since it is our tax dollars that fund them!

  • commonsense July 20, 2017 at 8:58 pm

    Utah leads the nation in per capita taxation for education. The problem is Utahns have too many kids.

    Ironically the biggest spenders per student are Alaska and Washington DC, two of the lowest in student testing.

  • utahdiablo July 20, 2017 at 11:06 pm

    Well shut this BS down at the ballot box…

  • Neil July 21, 2017 at 8:24 am

    How can we be talking about an increase in property taxes at a time when property values, and the taxes indexed to them are raising so fast? And not only are existing homes appreciating, but new ones are being built at an astounding rate, most of which are being purchased by retired people, so they are not putting an increased load on the school system. Property taxes are one of the most insidious forms of taxation, because it prevents you from ever being able to actually own the property you have paid for. You still have to pay the real owners an annual rental fee. If you want to know what’s wrong with Utah’s schools, it’s the same problem that plagues the business world; too many high paid executives that add no value to the system’s output, and the people that do all of the heavy lifting are underpaid and overworked. We need to thin the herd at the top, use the savings to pay the teachers what they’re worth and give them more say in how the system works.

  • kjtrent July 21, 2017 at 9:23 am

    My daughter graduated from College last year and almost immediately started questioning her career choice as a teacher after she realized how little money she was making and how many hours she was having to put in. It is also interesting to note that she actually had difficulty finding work in Utah County and other counties that people prefer to live in. It is the more remote counties that are having trouble finding teachers that want to live there and having to increase their pay to attract the teachers they need.

    It is a pity that whenever money is raised for schools very little of that trickles down to the teachers. I am also a fan of free-market principles so if our values as a community are to not just to fill a position with whoever is willing to work for those low wages but to make it enticing to a larger group of people that will hopefully result in better teachers. Maybe instead of voting to increase funding for schools we should vote to increase funding for teachers.

  • Dolly July 21, 2017 at 10:01 am

    Commonsense, you hit the nail on the head. Anyone can skew a survey, making it sound like poor Utah kids are being given the short stick (less spending per child), but the actual academic scores are the bottom line. Thank you for showing the DC & Alaska stats. This country is no longer suffering from a high mortality rate among children, why does this local culture continue to push for having so many kids?

  • Rainbow Dash July 23, 2017 at 7:38 pm

    Taxing won’t work. It does not matter how much money you toss at education, it won’t improve our current situation. If we want to improve our situation, we have to start holding PARENTS AND/OR GUARDIANS accountable for their childrens education. I don’t are what your situation is. I don’t care that you work “too much” I don’t care that you have a date that night. I DON’T CARE WHAT YOUR DUMB EXCUSE IS! You CHOSE to have sex and you CHOSE to bring/raise the child in this world. YOU can give YOUR KID 15 minutes every night to make sure your kid gets his/her homework done and done correctly.

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