Salt Lake City—Organizers of Our Schools Now officially submitted the group’s ballot initiative to Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox Tuesday.
The move puts the group one step closer to getting the Teacher and Student Success Act on the ballot to raise the personal income tax rate from 5 to 5.5 percent, and the sales tax increased from 4.7 to 5.2 percent, with the increase going towards public schools across the state and at every level. The group estimates the increase of personal income tax will generate $450 million per year, while the higher sales tax rate would bring in $250 million.
In order to get it on the ballot, the group will have a series of seven public hearings around the state starting in July, and will begin trying to collect the requisite 100,000 signatures in August.
“It has requirements that will require us to get 100,000 signatures, and that’s not going to be easy. We feel that this is so important that we put forth the time and the energy and resources to do that. We want to give citizens the opportunity to vote on what will happen to our schools in the future,” said Ron Jibson, retired chairman and CEO of Questar and one of the founders of Our Schools Now. “If we can get those signatures, we can pass this initiative and put Utah on the road to better education.”
Nolan Karras, former Utah Speaker of the House and Our Schools Now executive committee member, said changes over the past 20 years to the state’s tax code has cut the amount going to education–$1.2 billion annually—and created a burden on the education system further weighted by the state’s booming population. At the current rate, the governor and Legislature’s goal to have two-thirds of Utahns attain some kind of post-secondary education by 2020 is impossible, he said, as schools struggle to provide students with the barest requirements and have nothing left over for early learning opportunities, teacher training resources or other programs that boost student success.
“Why are these things not being implemented if they’re proven to work? Because the funding has been removed by changes to the tax code,” said Harris. “We’re dead last in per-person spending [on education] in this state, and we seem to wear that as a badge of honor. I don’t know why we’re proud of that. I’m not.”
Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, said students are promised qualified teachers, educational opportunities and academic support, but funding problems have made those difficult to keep.
“Being the lowest in per-person spending has caught up with us. The teacher shortage is only the most immediate symptom,” she said. “The choice isn’t so much about where the funding comes from as it is about the value we place on it.”
While teacher salaries remain low, more training and mentoring programs are actually more helpful for retaining educators and improving education, said Allison Riddle, 2014 Utah Teacher of the Year.
“Our teachers still have the greatest impact on education. Yes, increasing salaries will attract and retain teachers, but training and resources will have tremendous effects,” Riddle said. “As Utahns, we share a kind of collective responsibility for our students. … There has never been a more important time to invest in our schools than right now.”
Scott Anderson, president and CEO of Zions Bank, noted the efforts of lawmakers to improve and fund education, and said Our Schools Now’s goal is to enhance, not correct, those efforts.
“They know as well as we all know that a state’s economy is only as good as its workforce,” he said. “This is, I believe, Utah’s current economic challenge. We do not know what the next booming economy will be, but high-quality education will ensure students are prepared for the economy of tomorrow.”