Gov. Gary Herbert wants to help fund schools by growing the economy.
His opponent, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, wants to reexamine the state's tax structure, use of school buildings, limit corporate incentives and impose limitations on how much money lawmakers may transfer.
School funding was one of the main topics both candidates discussed in front of hundreds of educators at the Utah Education Association's (UEA) annual convention Thursday. In what might have been a first, the union endorsed both for office, a move that riled some UEA members. The UEA sent a letter to members recently explaining the decision after being questioned by some.
"Frankly, we've got the best of both worlds in terms of a choice between two candidates that are prioritizing education as their top issue," said Kory Holdaway, UEA government relations director. He noted that Herbert was instrumental in protecting education funding during the last legislative session and that Corroon's platform aligns with education funding issues that concern UEA.
Corey Grua, an English teacher at Grantsville Junior High, said it seemed like the UEA was "fence sitting," though he said he's happy both candidates recognize the importance of education.
"It bothered me a little bit," Grua said of the dual endorsement. "You begin to wonder now where do they [the UEA] really stand."
But, largely, whatever concerns UEA members might have had with the dual endorsement weren't evident as the candidates spoke Thursday. Both earned applause and a number of teachers said afterward they thought both had good points.
"I thought it was interesting they endorsed both of them," said Denise Stromness, a teacher at Horizonte Instruction and Training Center in Salt Lake City. "It gives us an opportunity to see what options we may be faced with in the future."
Both candidates addressed questions from UEA leaders about education goals. And they addressed school funding during their speeches, which followed a UEA video that emphasized the need to make changes to Utah's tax structure to better fund education. Utah has the lowest per pupil spending in the nation.
"We want to find better ways to in fact increase revenue streams to fund education," Herbert said. "Utah has a unique challenge high birth rates, higher household sizes, a lot of public land that we cannot in fact use property tax on to help fund education. So how are we going to do it? We're going to grow the economy, and guess what, it's working."
But Corroon, who spoke after Herbert, challenged that notion.
"My opponent just said that in order to invest in our education we have to have a strong economy. I agree with that, but my plan does not wait for the economy to turn around," Corroon said. "Utah's unemployment rate went up 8,600 jobs just in the last year. I believe we need to invest in education in both good times and bad times."
Herbert said a tax increase would "not be a good thing for us to do, particularly in a fragile economy like we face today," while Corroon has said his plan would not require a tax increase. Corroon also criticized the state's current lack of a long-term education funding plan, and Herbert talked about his Governor's Education Excellence Commission, which includes lawmakers, educators and members of Utah's business community. This week, the commission set a goal of 66 percent of Utah adults holding college degrees or certificates by 2020.
Herbert also told teachers education was cut by only $10 million this past legislative session despite the threat of much larger cuts. "I was the one who stood up against the Legislature and said we will not have any cuts in education as we have in the last year of Gov. Huntsman's term, that we will hold the line on funding and we worked with the education people to talk about a plan moving forward," Herbert said.
Corroon also criticized Herbert's past support of school vouchers, saying, "I don't think we should ever consider funding another school system before we have funded our own public school system."
Many teachers said after the speeches they were happy with points made by both candidates.
Ilene Davies, a U.S. History teacher at the South Cache Center in Hyrum, said she thought Corroon spoke more clearly about teachers' concerns, such as why Herbert has not yet called a special session to approve $101 million in federal money for schools. Christine Kearl, Herbert's education director, has said a special session might not be called until November to give legislative leaders time to shore up support in both Houses.
"Having the money in May does not lower my class sizes today," Davies said.
But Kevin Poff, a teacher at Mueller Park Junior High in Bountiful, said he appreciated Herbert's points about how he's been working with the UEA.
"It's good to hear Gov. Herbert is working with this organization that represents Utah teachers because for a long time we've been on the outside," Poff said. "I've been a Republican all my life and for too long Republican leadership has treated teachers like we're the enemy."
Corroon also announced that if he's elected, he will go on a statewide listening tour before his inauguration to get input on education and jobs.