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Op-ed: Facts show Utah schools don't need a big tax increase

Published November 29, 2016 8:49 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It has been wittily remarked that there are three kinds of falsehood: the first is a "fib," the second is a downright lie, and the third and most aggravated is statistics.

— Letter to the editor of the National Observer (1891)



This saying should cross our minds when we're reading public opinion polls, and recent polls suggesting broad support for higher income taxes are a case in point.

It is not uncommon for people to answer one way in a hypothetical poll but act differently in reality. As a recent example, some speculate that many voters nationally voiced support for Hillary Clinton or another candidate to pollsters, but then cast their vote for President-elect Donald Trump. Utah pollsters have repeatedly found high levels of support for Medicaid expansion and income tax hikes, but Utah voters continue to re-elect legislators who oppose these policies.

Perhaps many public opinion polls aren't all they're made out to be in the media.

Polls conducted by Dan Jones for Utah Policy on the topic of public school funding have reported that large majorities of Utahns support what is described to them as "a 7/8 of 1 percent increase" in income taxes — an increase that appears minuscule. But the mathematical fact is that raising Utah's income tax rate by 7/8 of one percentage point (from 5 to 5 7/8 percent) means that the amount of income taxes each Utahn pays goes up by close to 20 percent.

How much the income tax hike would increase Utahns' income tax liability is, rather oddly, missing from these opinion polls. The omission of such basic information on the issue may lead respondents to believe that the relative financial impact on them is insignificant. Another recent poll, also by Dan Jones and Associates, demonstrated how much language affects results. The clearer it was in a poll question that the respondent would pay more in their own taxes, the less likely they were to support funding increases for public schools.

But there is a silver lining to public opinion polls – even if they don't present the whole picture. Their publication creates an opportunity to seek for more informed, thoughtful and elevated dialogue on the issue.

When it comes to education funding, dialogue should focus on whether education spending is meeting the unique needs of actual children – not whether we feel good about how many tax dollars are being spent.

Newly released data by the "Nation's Report Card" (the federally sponsored National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP) is informative. Utah's eighth-graders led the nation in science proficiency in 2015; Utah's fourth-graders significantly trailed only one state in science proficiency. Utah's eighth-graders were significantly behind only four states and fourth-graders behind only three states in reading proficiency. In math proficiency, the comparable figure was five states for Utah's eighth-graders and fourth-graders.

In other words, Utah's elementary and middle-school students are among the nation's leaders on this test in most basic subjects.

Utah high schoolers also show positive outcomes. Utah's graduation rate of nearly 85 percent is above the national average. All racial, ethnic and economic subgroups have made graduation gains in recent years, although Utah still needs to close racial and economic graduation rate gaps. Utah leads the nation in the number of students passing an Advanced Placement exam (earning a 3, 4 or 5), with 66 percent of its takers earning those scores compared with the national average at 55.9 percent. Utah high school participation in AP exams jumped 6 percent this year, and since last year there has been a 10 percent jump in students participating who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.

There's always work to be done to make sure our education system is meeting the unique academic needs of every individual, but these facts do not paint a dire picture that calls for a 20 percent hike of Utahns' state income taxes. This is why Utah's education funding debate requires a more informed and elevated debate than opinion polls can create.

Christine Cooke, J.D., is education policy analyst at Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank in Salt Lake City advocating for a free market economy, civil society and community-driven solutions.

 

 

 

 

 

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