This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated.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.
For years, Utah citizens have listed public education as one of their top concerns. Various polls have shown support for a tax increase, especially when targeted at areas of public education that can deliver effective long-term results. The Utah Citizens' Counsel (UCC) a group of nonpartisan retirees with significant public policy experience has been following these developments.
We believe it is time for voters to support a major investment in our intellectual and social infrastructure our public schools just as we did for our physical infrastructure our roads and highways at the time of the 2002 Olympic Games. Utah leaders say they want to solve Utah's problems with Utah initiatives. Targeted spending to improve the long-term quality of public education deserves to be high on the list of those initiatives.
Some commentators argue that no tax increase is necessary because Utah's students are achieving at or above national averages and graduation rates. What these reported achievement levels do not explain is that when Utah student scores are broken out by ethnic group, every group, including whites, scores below that group's national average in most areas, including graduation rates. Furthermore, when Utah's scores are compared to those of "peer" states those judged comparable based on demographic data we come out even worse. Utah's college-readiness scores are also deficient. We believe that much must be done to remedy this situation.
Most aspects of public education, including student assessment, teacher evaluation, curriculum standards, materials, methods and the curriculum itself are the responsibility of the state and local education agencies. The federal role has decreased under the Every Student Succeeds Act (successor to No Child Left Behind), and states need to rise to the occasion. What should Utah expect from its government leaders? UCC specifically advocates the following:
1) Public and private investment in expanded preschool opportunities, especially for at-risk children from low-income families, and families where English is not the primary language. These 3- and 4-year-old children need high-quality preschool programs taught by trained preschool teachers. The goal is to prepare them to be kindergarten ready in terms of their vocabulary, understanding of numbers, and social skills. The gap they currently experience compared to more advantaged peers holds them back throughout their school years. Research into the gains from high-quality preschool shows long-term gains that reach into the adult years.
2) More support for new teachers within the first five years of their teaching careers. This will reduce their alarmingly low retention rates. Every new teacher should have a one-on-one mentor, access to collaborative peer support in their classroom, and placement in a classroom where they can polish their skills before being put into the most difficult teaching environments.
3) An increase in teacher salaries. Today's salaries cannot compete with the salaries in other careers open to college graduates. Change is essential to attract and retain the best teachers.
4) A 1 percent increase in the state's personal income tax rate (from 5 percent to 6 percent) and a reduction in tax loopholes that together will add up to a $1 billion a year increase for public schools. This will go far to achieve the above priorities and others (such as improved assessment measures). We need that much new money to recoup the billions (yes, it's true) that have been lost to public education over the past two decades because of income tax cuts and spending shifts. Such an investment would show Utah's commitment to regaining our place among the top ten education systems in the country and to overcoming our decline in measures of student achievement.
Utah's growing economy is among the best in the country. We can afford this kind of investment in our children's futures. Indeed, if we do not, we are failing to prepare all our children for success in the complex, changing, competitive and challenging world they will face in the years to come.
(The UCC's full 2016 Education Report with supporting tax data will be released on Dec. 9 as part of UCC's Annual Report, "Standing Up for Utah's Needs." Six other areas of public policy are also part of the 2016 Annual Report. Watch for the full report on our website, http://www.utahcitizenscounsel.org)
Dixie Huefner is a retired professor of Special Education Law, College of Education, University of Utah. John Bennion is former superintendent of Salt Lake City and Provo School Districts. Kim Burningham is a former Republican state legislator and former chair of the Utah State Board of Education. M. Donald Thomas is former superintendent of Salt Lake City School District. Rickie McCandless is former associate superintendent of Salt Lake City School District.