SALT LAKE CITY — If you need proof of the Utah Legislature’s commitment to public education, Senate Majority Assistant Whip Ann Millner points to what lawmakers did when they were forced to slash the state budget this summer due to a steep decline in tax revenues resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Income tax revenues, which are earmarked for education, dropped some $700 million. Meanwhile, other funding sources such as sales tax dropped too, but by a lower percentage. Because the Utah Legislature is constitutionally mandated to balance the state budget, lawmakers cut the state budget to align the reduced revenues, said Millner, R-Ogden.
Instead of imposing an across-the-board reduction, lawmakers followed the intent of HB357, which passed earlier in the year and would create a public education stabilization fund to hedge against future economic downturns, although the fund has not yet been funded.
“We funded an increase in funds for public education while everyone else took a deeper cut. We believe that we were probably the only state in the nation to do that, where public education is coming out with an increase in funds,” Millner said in a press conference conducted over Zoom on Monday.
Millner said the framework in HB357, which will be enacted if a majority of Utah voters approve proposed constitutional Amendment G, would “better protect and stabilize education over the long term.”
Utah’s education community — elected state and local school board members, associations that represent educators, education leaders and parents — joined Millner to lend their support of Amendment G.
Proposed constitutional Amendment G, one of seven constitutional amendments on Utah’s general election ballot, seeks to expand the uses of income tax revenue to support programs for children and people with disabilities.
State income tax has been solely earmarked for public education for decades. In 1946, a constitutional amendment required income tax to be allocated to the Education Fund. In 1996, Utah voters passed a constitutional amendment that allows higher education access to income tax revenue.
Critics say expanding the earmark to also allow income tax to fund programs for children and people with disabilities will further stretch a revenue source that already falls short of meeting the needs of Utah’s educational system.
Steve Hirase, a former superintendent of the Murray City School District, said it makes more sense to take a holistic approach to serving people with disabilities. Earlier in his career, Hirase worked as a special educator at a school that served students with significant disabilities.
“One of the things for me that was the most frustrating thing was, I worked with older students that were 12 to 22 years old. When they left our school system, many of them went into programs that had very long waiting lists and there weren’t a lot of funds that would help support them,” he said.
Most ended up at home and their skills deteriorated as they lingered on waiting lists for services for people with disabilities.
“So for me, I think this is a good step in the right direction to help provide programs for those children that are leaving the public school system that are adults and need additional programs and support so that they can continue to develop and become productive members in our society, and they don’t lose everything that they learned and all those years that we invested in them,” Hirase said.
The amendment does not specify programs or services that could receive funding; rather it is a statement of “our state’s priorities,” said McKay Jensen, president of the Utah School Boards Association and board member of Provo Board of Education.
It rises to “What are our state’s priorities?” and how should precious public dollars be used? Jensen said.
“Education, taking care of the least among us, those are worthy investments,” he said.
Former Sen. Howard Stephenson, who is president of the Utah Taxpayers Association, said early in his legislative service, he was opposed to what he perceived was “excess in public education” such as school breakfast, school counselors, after-school programs and early childhood education.
Then he learned about adverse childhood experiences — ACEs for short.
Adverse childhood experiences are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood, and can include violence, abuse and growing up in a family with mental health or substance use problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Toxic stress from these experiences can change brain development and affect how the body responds to stress. ACEs are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness and substance misuse in adulthood, according to the CDC.
“We know that the earlier you interdict with a child on the spectrum, the better off that child is going to be and the lower cost that child is going to be when they enter the school system. We have good evidence on that and dealing with ACEs and other kinds of things. I’ve changed my stripes on that,” Stephenson said.
Royce Van Tassell, executive director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, said it is noteworthy that Utah’s education constituencies broadly support Amendment G.
Arguments for Amendment G on the state election website, voteinfo.utah.gov, note the support of the State School Board, the Utah Education Association, the Utah School Boards Association, Utah School Superintendents Association, Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, Our Schools Now, the Utah Public Employees Association, Utah PTA and Utah Taxpayers Association.
“I think the goal here is to say, we, the Legislature, and we, as folks who represent various segments of the public education community, recognize a need for greater flexibility to meet changing needs. The world of 1996 is not the world of 2020. We need tools that better meet that responsibility. We want to make commitments to public education that say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to keep you whole,’” Van Tassell said.