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Utah's business leaders want more funding for public schools, and they have a plan to get tax-shy lawmakers to pull the trigger ask the voters.
Prosperity 2020 and Education First on Monday called for lawmakers to put the question of a 0.875 percent income tax increase on November's ballot.
The increase, which translates to seven-eighths of 1 percent, would net more than $500 million each year for Utah schools.
"We think it's time that education have a major boost in funding," said Richard Kendell, co-chairman of Education First and former Utah commissioner of higher education.
In Utah, all income tax revenue is put into the state's education fund and used to fund public education.
But changes to the tax code over the past two decades, including an income tax drop from 7 percent to 5 percent in 2007, have robbed schools of roughly $1 billion in ongoing funding, Kendell said.
In that time, he said, class sizes have ballooned to some of the largest in the country and demoralized teachers have left the profession, resulting in a staff shortage in many districts.
Kendell said education is key to the economic health of the state, and schools require investment in order to respond to modern demands.
"A well-educated person is a civic good," he said. "It's good for everybody."
Under the proposal, voters would consider a non-binding resolution for higher taxes in November. The success or failure of that resolution would then direct lawmakers during the 2016 legislative session.
Jesselie Anderson, a member of the Utah Board of Regents and co-chairwoman of Education First, said public polling consistently shows that Utahns are willing to support schools through higher taxes.
But lawmakers, she said, are often reticent to approve tax hikes for personal or political reasons.
"If the public votes for it," she said, "that gives them the cover so they can act."
Last year, lawmakers approved a $75 million increase to statewide property taxes, which was used to equalize funding between the state's 41 school districts.
Anderson praised that action, but added that the momentum needs to continue in order to make significant improvements in Utah's educational outcomes.
"We are quick to point out that [lawmakers] did the right thing" with last year's tax bill, she said. "But we can't do one thing and hope that will solve it."
While the specifics of the tax increase wouldn't be determined until the 2017 legislative session, the proposal from Education First and Prosperity 2020 calls for new revenue to be targeted toward preschool services for at-risk students, expansion of full day kindergarten, literacy and numeracy programs for elementary students, and high school graduation interventions.
The revenue would be distributed on a per-pupil basis, with 60 percent of the funding reserved for elementary schools, 20 percent for middle schools and the remaining 20 percent for high schools.
Kendell said the state has made strides with its math and reading scores, and graduation rates.
But Utah is home to one of the nation's largest achievement gaps between white and minority students, he said, and too many students are slipping through the cracks.
"It's a race between being self-sufficient and being dependent," he said.
Last week, lawmakers were sent a letter outlining the proposal, which was signed by Kendell, Anderson and more than 70 of Utah's business leaders, including Zions Bank President Scott Anderson, Cicero Group CEO Randy Shumway, and Gail Miller, owner of the Larry H. Miller Group.
Justin Jones, vice president of public policy for Education First and Prosperity 2020, said several lawmakers have expressed interest in sponsoring the resolution, and he expected a sponsor and bill to be finalized by the end of the week.
He said the group has discussed a ballot initiative if the resolution fails, but that option is seen as a last resort.
"That would put us into 2018," he said. "Pretty soon my fourth grader is in junior high and high school."