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Throughout the world, the most vibrant economies put education first. As a business community, we know that a person's ability to contribute to society is tied to their educational achievement. Utah's continued economic prosperity is driven by those with the knowledge and skills to compete globally.

Utah's pro-business climate and diverse economy have powered a remarkable recovery. However, Utah is seeing advanced warning signs indicating that Utah's investment in public education and our student's educational achievement are both lacking. Utah, once a leader in education nationally, has slipped into the middle of the pack for critical educational outcomes. Our standardized test scores have not fallen, but peer states have innovated and left Utah behind. Utah's fourth-grade students ranked 20th in the nation in math and 14th in reading, while eighth-grade students ranked 16th in math and 10th in reading.

If we ignore these clear warning signs about Utah's educational underachievement, it is at our own peril. We must invest now or pay a dear price later. That is why Education First, a citizen group of 50,000 Utahns dedicated to putting education first, developed a five-year plan to improve education. The plan focuses on targeted strategies that are proven to positively affect academic achievement.

This group is calling on education and policy leaders to focus on the plan's objectives. During the 2016 Utah State Legislature, Education First will focus on funding for statewide early childhood education for at-risk students, professional learning opportunities for teachers for math and reading learning and support for college completion including performance-based funding and compensation to attract high-quality instructors and researchers.

In addition, we are looking at a long-term funding mechanism for education. Ten years ago, Utah enacted a series of significant income, property and sales tax reductions that have had a profound impact on Utah's public and higher education performance. These tax reductions are estimated to be $1 billion in lost annual revenue and have moved Utah's education funding effort to 33rd in the U.S.

That is why Education First, along with business and community leaders from across the state are proposing that Utahns be given the choice to vote on increasing personal income tax by 7/8 of one percent. This voter-approved measure would generate an estimated $518.5 million annually for local, targeted investments that will improve student performance.

We recommend that these funds be distributed to local schools with district oversight and coordination, with 60 percent going to elementary schools, 20 percent going to middle or junior high schools and 20 percent for high schools. The funds may be used for: non-capital, academic strategies to increase access to early childhood education, to increase student achievement in reading and math, additional licensed counselors for college and career coaching, maintaining or reducing classroom size, improving technology and training for teachers and assuring a qualified teacher is in every classroom. Each school's funding will be based on enrollment at the end of the previous year and on a local plan for improving school outcomes.

We urge you to tell your legislators to support giving Utahns the opportunity to restore a portion of the previously lost funding to our public school students. By putting the "7/8 of one percent Initiative for Public Schools" on the ballot, you will in turn empower local parents and educators to make changes in their own school districts, to prepare their children for a brighter future.

Jesselie Anderson is co-chair of Education First and a member of the Utah Board of Regents. Richard Kendell, Ph.D., is also a co-chair of Education First and a former Utah Commissioner of Higher Education.