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Opinion: Amendment G controversy adds confusion to Utah’s quiet crisis

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Funding public education in Utah has been an ongoing dilemma for legislators, educators, and citizens for decades. With Utah legislators and Governor Herbert pushing for an amendment to the Utah Constitution to allow money previously reserved only for public and higher education to “support children and support people with a disability,” the fight for public funds becomes even more controversial.

Amendment G is supported by the UEA, Utah School Board Association, Utah Taxpayers Association, and most of the Utah legislature. Only a handful of legislators voted against the amendment. As always, the devil is in the details.

According to Dixie Huefner, Richard Kendell, and Catherine Weller, in a Deseret News op-ed, they see this amendment as a “vague and wide-open invitation to undo the 74-year-old tradition of protecting income tax revenues for public education. This fact is not explained in the ballot question. Education isn’t even mentioned. The opinion writers also contend that the legislation may work for a few years, assuming the economy recovers. Still, it is a changeable and uncertain fix that comes at the expense of long-term protection in the state constitution.

As citizens become more familiar with the pitfalls in the amendment, the opposition is becoming more widespread. A Utah Citizens Counsel representative said in a Zoom press conference, “Utah’s public education system is already underfunded and things could worsen if Utahns vote for Amendment G…It sounds good to help children and people with a disability; who wouldn’t want to? But what is not clear is that the amendment’s approval shifts the primary funding source for education from sales tax revenues to income tax revenues. This shift will force public education to compete for the same dollars without any indication that children and people with a disability will receive any more state money than they do now. 

Other groups, including the Utah League of Women Voters, Voices for Utah Children, and the United Utah Party, are concerned about what is ahead for educational funding with the new amendment. The consensus of opponents is, “This uncertain time is not the time for voters to be co-opted into approving what the legislature has failed to explain clearly to the public.”

Sheryl Allen, a former state representative and a former president of Davis School Board said, “It is past time for Utah to invest in educator salaries to attract the best and the brightest to enter and remain in the teaching profession. COVID -19 has also validated the need for smaller class sizes. For decades, our teachers have been attempting to instruct and counsel many more students than the national average. Now the risks of crowded classrooms and the need for more class-size reduction funding are accelerated.”

 In 1996, when the legislature added higher education to the pot of public monies earmarked explicitly for public education, I was a middle school counselor and an adjunct professor at Utah Valley University (UVSC at that time). I remember several semesters when my classes at UVU only had a dozen or so students enrolled. It was also a time when my biggest challenge was finding classes for my students that were not already overflowing. The disparity in allocating money became a constant source of frustration for me. Higher Ed seemed to lack for nothing while Public Education struggled every year to receive adequate funding. Utah has been last in per-pupil funding in the nation for years. Certainly, not something I am proud of.

One morning, I will never forget the frustration in my colleague’s demeanor when I sent the 40th student to enroll in her world civilizations class. “I am out of books and desks,” she explained–not an uncommon complaint. My frustration was only matched by our Principal’s, who was given a certain number of FTE’s (full-time teaching equivalents) by district administrators. We were always scrambling for more desks, books, and, most of all, teachers. My reaction to the 1996 amendment was much the same as it is today with Amendment G. There is nothing in the amendment that provides additional funding for public education. It’s like re-arranging the chairs on the Titanic. Nothing is going to change when funding sources are the same. The guarantees in the amendment are only shallow promises like those we have heard many times before.

In a recent poll conducted by Envision Utah and reported by the Deseret News, 78% of the respondents said they would “probably or definitely be willing to pay for increased education spending.”

I urge a “no” vote on Amendment G.

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