This week, Republican lawmakers are hoping to hold a special session to pass a large tax reform package. It would impose new sales taxes while cutting the overall income tax rate, and cutting income tax means cutting more than half a billion dollars in education funding. But a plan for replacing that money isn’t in the bill.
That worries 2nd grade teacher Denise Willmore, who has spent the last ten years of her 25-year career teaching in Davis School District.
On a recent weekday after school let out, Willmore stood in her classroom, crammed with tiny stools and desks and decorated with art projects and vocabulary posters.
She opened a cabinet full of blocks, workbooks and games — resources to help students learn math.
From the shelf, Willmore pulled out a gallon-size bag full of laminated sheets of paper. It was a makeshift board game to help students learn about odd and even numbers.
“Sometimes you can teach the concept or even have a lesson on the iPad, but kids get their ‘ah-ha’ moments sometimes when they’re playing a game,” she said.
Willmore bought or made most of the supplies in her math cupboard — and the rest of her classroom — on her own. To get some extra help paying for things, she taught herself how to write grants years ago.
“But not everybody’s able to do that,” she said, especially newer teachers. “They make less money and they don’t have the resources to get new supplies.”
School funding is not a new issue and it’s been debated in Utah for years. Teachers have long asked for smaller classes, higher pay and more money for classroom supplies. But U.S. Census data shows that Utah has ranked last in the nation in per-pupil funding for more than a decade.
Right now, all the state taxes that come out of Utahns’ paychecks go directly to the education fund. That money — projected at around $3.5 billion for 2020 — is essentially earmarked for public schools and higher education.
The earmark is so important that it’s been part of the Utah constitution since the 1940s, said Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association — Utah’s largest teacher’s union.
It “establishes a priority and a promise, “ she said. “Like, ‘This matters to us so much as a state that we want to carve out these funds in perpetuity in order to make sure that our youth are educated.’”
But some state lawmakers say the education earmark limits their ability to pay for other necessities, like roads, and they’re looking for more spending flexibility. It’s partly why they’re working on tax reform in the first place.
Some lawmakers, like Senate Assistant Majority Whip Ann Millner, R-Ogden, say they’re not sure the educational earmark is working.
“I think we’ve had that earmark in place for over 50 years and we are 50 out of 50 states in terms of funding of public education,” said Millner, a former president of Weber State University.
Millner is leading closed-door negotiations between educators and lawmakers over what to do about school funding. The solution is complex and still being worked through, and it’s not part of a new tax reform bill that came out Friday evening. A legislative task force is expected to vote on the draft Monday night.
But the basic premise that Millner is proposing is to do away with the income tax earmark and ask school districts to increase their local property taxes. State funding would be used to ensure growth for inflation and student population. It would also be used to equalize funding for poorer school districts.
The Alpine School District Board has already come out against that idea. In a letter, the board members wrote that they support “primarily funding education on a state level.”
But according to Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, property tax revenues are more stable than income taxes. He says that’s ultimately what teachers want: stability.
“Essentially, what they’re looking for is consistency and the ability to plan for the future,” said Spendlove. “The earmark is one way to have a level of consistency, but I believe the proposal that is being worked on is a better way to ensure long-term viability for education.”
But Heidi Matthews, the UEA president, criticized the lack of details, calling it a plan “that isn’t fleshed out, that few people have seen, that we haven’t had the chance to vet.”
Matthews believes education funding and the current tax reform bill should be looked at together and called a tentative special session “entirely premature.”
Removing the constitutional earmark on education funding would require voter approval. That means any new plan that lawmakers come up with for funding schools is contingent on a question that wouldn’t go before voters until November 2020.
In the meantime, lawmakers’ tax reform plan includes an income tax cut of $635 million — which means a $635 million cut to the education fund.
All of this worries 2nd grade teacher Denise Willmore, who thinks schools are taking a back seat.
“They came up with tax cuts, and don’t really have a plan for funding education,” Willmore said. “I am really concerned about that. I feel like it is time to put education first.”