Utah Education Suffers From Chronic Underinvestment

By Deborah Gatrell

Utah’s education system is experiencing what the medical profession describes as “shock.”

Basic EMTs know that shock is an emergency where the body has insufficient blood flow. As a consequence, body tissues are starved of the oxygen necessary to sustain life and poisoned as waste products build up. There are three stages in the progression of shock: compensated, decompensated, and irreversible (causing irreparable harm). If not treated, the inevitable result is death.

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Similar to the impact of low blood volume on the human body, education in Utah suffers from chronic underfunding, with cumulative effects that are rapidly approaching a tipping point, the “irreversible” stage. 

Utah teachers struggle valiantly to meet student needs. We spend much of our own money and crowdsource to purchase needed basic supplies. We sacrifice untold hours of personal time and energy in a desperate effort to comply with ever-multiplying Federal, state and district mandates. We work harder and smarter, in spite of ineffective one-size-fits-all “professional development.”  We find lesson resources to fill the gaps when school and district-provided materials are out of date or ineffective.

We’re also political punching bags instead of respected professionals. Many in the State Legislature view us suspiciously. Sometimes there is outright hostility. It wasn’t all that long ago when a State Senator bemoaned the fact that, in his view, old teachers need to “die off” and get out of the way. A former State Superintendent compared teachers to greedy children on Christmas morning. I personally heard a school district Assistant Superintendent blame teachers for poor implementation of new curriculum when the district did not provide necessary curriculum materials until after the school year started. 

The high rate of teacher turnover in the state of Utah was a warning sign. Instead of taking meaningful action, Utah leaders “studied” the problem while simultaneously exacerbating it. The Legislature’s 2010 retirement reform decreasing future benefits and requiring teachers spend 35 years in the classroom made teaching less attractive as a career and increased turnover further. Increased health insurance costs in many districts, coupled with ridiculous class sizes add insult to injury. Additional unfunded mandates are  “inexplicably” pushing teachers out of the classroom.

 There are some bright spots. Utah schools improved the statewide graduation rate. However, other measures of college readiness remain below the national average. 2018’s NAEP scores show Utah’s 4th and 8th grade students remain slightly above the national average in reading and math. However, there’s been no significant improvement and struggling subgroups are grave cause for concern.

Utah’s demographics are changing, with foreseeable consequences. Student performance on national assessments will inevitably decrease if we do nothing to address the needs of growing subgroups that historically perform below average. Utah’s baby boomers are reaching retirement age and teachers who stayed in the classroom for 30 years are leaving in droves. 

There’s no stronger predictor of a child’s success in the classroom than having an effective teacher. Unfortunately, current teacher pay makes it incredibly difficult to support a family. The teacher pay penalty (the gap between what teachers and other similarly educated professionals earn) increased significantly as Utah Education funding stagnated despite Utah’s booming post-Great Recession economy. Teacher morale continues sinking to new distressing lows. For the first time, most parents now discourage their children from becoming teachers, so it’s no surprise that University students are choosing other career fields

As a consequence of prior tax reform, Utah’s K-12 schools are shorted $1 billion each year we could otherwise use to benefit our students. Current tax reform efforts threaten to make this worse.

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No one is asking the Legislature to “throw money at a problem.” On the contrary, there are smart people working on the issues and prioritizing needs in the State Board of Education, the Governor’s Office, and the Utah Education Association.

We must do better than “holding education harmless” because current funding levels are harmful. Utah students already suffer the effects of chronic underinvestment. Failure to invest NOW will have catastrophic results in the very near future.

Contact your Legislators and tell them we will not accept tax reform that does not guarantee significant and ongoing investment in education.

Deborah Gatrell is a National Board Certified Teacher in Granite School District and Utah Teacher Fellow alumna. She was also an EMT once upon a time. Follow her on Twitter @DeborahGatrell1 and follow the Utah Teacher Fellows @HSG_UT and on Facebook.

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