Organization promotes Utah education tax hikes

Our Schools Now is proposing a law that would increase taxes to generate revenue for public education.

Utah County residents gathered at one of seven public hearings held across the state on Jun. 11 to discuss the initiative.

Community members who attended the hearing hosted by the Our Schools Now initiative at Orem Elementary School voiced everything from support for Utah’s future to concern about pumping money into an “already failing system.”

The Teacher and Student Success Act  would increase the state income tax by half a percentage point and the state sales tax by half a percentage point over three years to increase investment in education, according to the initiative’s website.

Ari Davis
Elementary school teacher Brandon Engles gives a statement at the Utah Schools Now public hearing on Tuesday. Engles, who favors the initiative to raise taxes for public education, said he has to pay out of pocket to meet his students’ needs. (Ari Davis)

Our Schools Now can bypass the Utah Legislature by getting enough petition signatures supporting the Teacher and Student Success Act to get it onto the November 2018 ballot. Voters can then decide whether it will be law.

According to the presentation given at the hearing by Paul Thompson, a volunteer for the initiative, this law would bring the state sales tax rate up from 4.7 percent to 5.2 percent and the state income tax rate up from 5 percent to 5.5 percent. After the three-year incremental phase-in, the tax money would generate $700 million per year for teacher and student success, Thompson said.

Elementary and high schools would receive 85 percent of this money, while secondary education institutions like public universities, colleges, and technical colleges would receive 15 percent, according to the initiative’s website.

Thompson, a former dean of the BYU Marriott School of Management and former president of Weber State University, said he was not at the meeting to criticize educators.

“What I am suggesting is that we are not supporting our teachers,” Thompson said. “And as a result, we’re not having the support we need for our students.”

Thompson said teachers often quit early in their careers because of this lack of support.

According to a study released in February 2017, of all Utah teachers who began teaching in the 2007-2008 school year, 56 percent were no longer teaching in the classroom by 2014-2015.

Our Schools Now focuses on continued improvement in Utah schools, like teacher retention. According to the presentation, investment in Utah schools decreases every year because of changes to Utah tax code over the last 20 years. This has resulted in decreased quality of education, according to Thompson’s presentation. Education Week gave Utah a C- grade for the quality of education in the state.

Several prominent business leaders and residents in Utah are backing the effort for improvement, according to Thompson. Some of these include Gail Miller, owner of Larry H. Miller Group of Companies; A. Scott Anderson, president and CEO of Zions Bank; Elaine S. Dalton, former Young Women general president of the LDS Church; and A. Marc Harrison, chairman and CEO of Intermountain Healthcare.

“This is a business-driven initiative, which strengthens our state’s economy,” Thompson said in the presentation.

He said each school would determine with its district what to do with the additional $946 per student generated by the tax hike. All the funding would go toward the classroom, not administration or construction costs.

Pleasant Grove resident Brandon Engles is a BYU alum and a teacher at Dry Creek Elementary School in Lehi. He just finished his 12th year of teaching and has taught nearly 500 students.

“I’ve been following this initiative, and I’m for it,” Engles said in his statement at the hearing. “It’s meant to help our children.”

Engles said he has to spend his own money to make sure his students are getting what they need. He said he spent over $1,000 out of pocket last school year to help pay for materials for his robotics club. He also hosts STEM club on his personal time and isn’t paid for it.

Lehi resident and BYU alum Thayne Harbaugh is opposed to the initiative.

“The money is only going to students in the public-controlled education system rather than all people that are increasing their education,” Harbaugh said after the meeting.

Others at the meeting argued efforts like privatization of services used in schools or pushing legislators to look elsewhere for funds would be more effective than a tax hike. Some raised concerns about homeschooled students and seniors who rely on Social Security money for their expenses.

People were able to express their opposition or support in statements after Thompson’s presentation. Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Salt Lake, and Rep. Tim Quinn, R-Summit, were at the meeting and available for residents to speak to after the presentation.

The initiative will begin accepting signatures in August. In order to land The Teacher and Student Success Act on the November 2018 ballot, Our Schools Now must get 113,143 signatures and submit them by April 15, 2018.

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