by Paul Mero

Should we raise taxes to provide more money for our public school system? Utah has one of the lowest per-pupil spending rates in the nation, if not the lowest at times, and yet we seem to do pretty well with what we have. In fact, we seem to do rather exceptionally with what resources we invest. Our per-pupil spending might be low but the overall investment in education is the largest part of our state budget, by far.

But would more money make a difference? The backers of the new funding initiative, Our Schools Now, say more money would make a huge difference and have proposed an increase to the state income tax – in Utah, all income tax goes to education. The Our Schools Now plan “calls for a 7/8 of 1 percent (.008) increase to the personal income tax, which [they predict] would total $750 million; [it would] provide each Utah school with roughly $1000 [more] per enrolled student; and, [it would] require all funding to be spent in ways that increase student learning.”

Most of the money would go to K-12, some would go to higher education and a little would go to applied technology colleges. Similar to how Utah funds economic development, the Our Schools Now plan would only award money as school goals have been met. The backers insist that local communities would decide how the money is spent. They say, “schools are operating with $1.6 billion less, this year alone, [because of past budget decisions by the Legislature].

They, too, insist “funding must be tied to innovation and student success.” And, so, they would require annual improvement plans approved by the school district tied to funding. Interestingly, the same craving for innovations in education is what drives opponents of the initiative. Opponents say, “Utah’s public schools need an investment of the best ideas, creativity, ingenuity, and the most thought-provoking questions of the status quo to ensure our education system meets every student’s unique needs.” They say, “Simply asking for more money addresses only part of the problem. If our public schools are failing students, it is in part because our system is poorly designed to meet students’ needs. Our public dialogue should progress from money to policies that will allow our system to improve student outcomes.”

Raising taxes to fund education is not a new idea. Years ago, a few legislators argued that the school-age population was overwhelming and that families with lots of children in school should pay more per child than other taxpayers. Currently, one liberal state senator wants us to tax rich people only to increase funding. Many years ago, I argued that we ought to think of school funding in terms of “use” more broadly than simply family size. I made the case, obviously not convincingly, that families with children who do not use the public school system should pay a lower tax rate than families that do. Childless couples and single people, too, should pay a lower tax rate and that families that do use public schools should pay higher rates according to their income – poor families should pay something and wealthier families should pay much more.

 

Everyone seems to agree that student outcomes need to improve and that innovation is key to improvement. Where they differ is on how improvements should occur. Are Utah’s student achievement problems systemic? Can innovation take place in our current command and control system?

Of course, the answer to those questions is a resounding no. Innovation comes from breaking the rules, not adhering to them. In this sense, there is no way the current system will accomplish anything new with more money. Critics are right about that. But critics are wrong in their all-or-nothing approach. The system will stay the same. Education results are not dramatically insufficient for taxpayers to revolt against the status quo. Like I said, results are actually quite good given the per pupil investment spending. Another big problem for critics is that voters remain supportive of increasing taxes for education within the current system. This is why backers of the Our Schools Now initiative believe they have a shot at winning.

I think it’s time for critics to pivot on education policy. They can’t win the Big Argument over systemic issues – the powers that be are too great and voters aren’t convinced that those powers have done a poor job. Critics would be well advised to make changes where needed changes are obvious. Strides in education reform are more successful among struggling students and schools. Support for these students and schools has not been widespread because, frankly, those students and schools are on the wrong side of the tracks and easily forgotten by the majority of taxpayers.

But there is a lot of rhetorical and political room to advance great innovations and strides within the community of struggling students and schools. If conservative critics of the current system would get off their high ideological horses for a second, they might see the opportunities to make a difference in Utah education.