It’s Thursday-Thank a Teacher: Victor Neves Edition

Wahoo! It’s your lucky day– I am spotlighting Victor Neves from WHMS in Jordan School District.  Mr. Neves Music; read on to learn more about him.

Where did you do your teacher prep? at BYU.

What is the greatest thing about being an educator? Seeing kids grow.

What advice would you give to new teachers? Know your role.

Why did you choose to become an educator and why do you choose to stay in the profession? Love of subject, love of kids.

 

Victor may have brief in his responses, but you can learn more about him by following him on Twitter @bandtek and grow your PLN.

 

Cheers!

Tabitha

Teachers: A Voice that Matters

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By: Austin Green 

I sat looking up at the beautiful paintings sprawled across the House Floor ceiling, a rich history of the State of Utah’s legacy. Representative Steve Handy turned to me and asked for a quick summary of what Utah Teacher Fellows do. Suddenly we were standing… Representative Handy was reading the summary I had given him and recognizing the work that Utah Teacher Fellows passionately do as professionals. It was Educator Day on the Hill and I had the opportunity to sit next to my representative on the House Floor. It was a surreal experience! 

Just a few days prior I had been sitting in a town hall meeting and Representative Handy was sitting among a mixed panel of representatives and senators listening to public comments. I was among the public visiting that night and shared my appreciation in a public statement for “hitting the reset button” on tax reform. It’s been a long journey on this particular issue, but one that policy makers know will need to take some more time to get right. Yes, there is the process a bill follows in order to become a law. Being at Educator Day on the Hill helped me see that all the meetings, conversations, and discussions are pivotal moments on a bill’s journey to making a law. Additionally, our legislators want to hear from us and how their bills may affect us individually and professionally. 

Educator Day on the Hill was an opportunity to broaden relationships, and relationships are key in getting policy work done. As I drove away from the Utah State Capital and toward my school and classroom, I remembered my representative telling me he’d like to come and visit my classroom, and this shows me that what I have to say on education topics matters. 

I have a voice. I’m a professional. I’m a Utah Teacher Fellow.

Bio: Austin Green is a First Grade teacher in Davis School District and a Utah Teacher Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @beingmrgreen and follow the Utah Teacher Fellows @hsg_ut and on Facebook.

It’s Thursday-Thank a Teacher: Michele Morgan Edition

Do you know a rock-star Special Educator? Because I sure do. It is my privilege to highlight Michele Morgan. She is a Special Educator in Granite School District. Read on to learn more about the wonderful Ms. Morgan.

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Where did you do your teacher prep? George Mason University

What is the funniest thing a student has ever said to you? During a social skills lesson on giving compliments – “You are very good looking”

What advice would you give to new teachers? Take it one day at a time, celebrate the little successes you witness every day.

What’s the biggest change you would like to see in education? I would like to see educators be more valued and respected in today’s society.

Why did you want to become a teacher and why do you stay in the profession? I wanted to make a difference – I feel like even though this is a hard job and I often cry, I do make a difference and it matters every day to my students whether I show up or not.

 

Thanks Michele for being an amazing teacher! If you want to learn more about Michele, you can follow her on Twitter  @MicheleTMorgan1

 

Cheers!

Tabitha

A Civics Lesson

By: Deborah Gatrell

We all have our share of problems. To solve them, we must correctly identify the root issue. If we misdiagnose, our solutions will be ineffective, or worse. 

There’s been much talk about Civic Education in Utah’s halls of power recently. Our leaders are justifiably concerned about a general decrease in civic knowledge and voter turnout in elections despite high levels of relative political engagement.

While these concerns are legitimate, we’ve also reached a crisis point of public trust in our governing institutions. What to do?

Let’s start by understanding the problem.

Voter participation rates in Utah are usually low. Many disaffected citizens believe their vote no longer matters, so they do not actively engage. Large numbers of Unaffiliated voters in Utah suggests disillusionment with the major parties.

Why? Here are some likely contributing factors:

It seems our representative institutions fail to effectively represent the People. Too many elected officials have forgotten their role as public servants – easy to do while being feted by lobbyists.

It was clear in Tax Reform debates that many committee members were unsure of impacts when they discussed expanding sales taxes. Concerns raised by advocates for the poor were dismissed. Teachers were told to be quiet. Lobbyists were welcomed and asked follow up questions. I know – I was there.

Of course we shouldn’t legislate by citizen initiative or referendum, but thank goodness we have these tools to pressure our elected officials when they are deaf to our concerns

It’s telling that We the People feel left with no other options.

The Utah 2019 Tax Referendum Petition was a magnificent exercise in civic engagement as Utahns revolted against the tax reform package passed in Special Session on December 12, 2019. Pejoratively labeled as fringe groups, criticized by our elected officials, and attacked by the Sutherland Institute with misleading half-truths, people of all political stripes from all walks of life responded by signing the petition en masse. We met the required threshold for putting the law on the 2020 ballot with the legislators who gave it to us. So they repealed it, questioning our motives again as the 2020 Legislative session started. The People who organized and engaged in this effort remain watchful.

What, then, to do about the current state of civic engagement and civic education in the great state of Utah?

The Legislature’s answer is retaining a civics test graduation requirement that doesn’t actually assess civics. Never mind that a request to remove this test from state code came from teachers, counselors, and students was supported with a unanimous vote from the House Education committee after Dr. Sydney Dickson (State Superintendent), Granite School District, and UEA spoke in support of repeal.

I have another suggestion for the Legislature: consider the opportunity presented by the 2020 Census for honestly representative redistricting – respect the intent of Proposition 4. Even President Reagan called gerrymandering a national disgrace. Utahns are tired of it.

We believe our voice should matter – not one bit less than paid lobbyists and corporate sponsors.

If the status quo continues, expect primary challengers, motivated support for minority party candidates, and a significant turnout for the November 2020 elections. We’re tired of being overruled by leaders who refuse to listen to us.

So please listen to understand and allow voters to choose you instead of the other way around. We’ll all be better off.

Bio: Deborah Gatrell is a National Board Certified teacher and a veteran, frustrated enough by the current state of politics to consider running for office. Our elected officials should never forget who they work for as public servants.

Utah Civics Test Repeal

By Deborah Gatrell

Civics is the study of the rights and duties of citizenship. Or is it?

Encouraged by an outside special interest organization, Utah Legislators required Utah students to demonstrate competency in civics via questions from the civics section of the Federal naturalization test in 2015. 

This should have been repealed when Utah’s secondary Government and Citizenship course was updated in 2017 based on the National Council for Social Studies College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards, but it wasn’t. Rep. Elizabeth Weight’s HB 152 is an overdue correction to a flawed Legislature-mandated testing policy and an onerous graduation requirement.

Quick – Quiz yourself:

  1. How many amendments does the Constitution have?
  2. The House of Representatives has how many voting members?
  3. When was the Constitution written?
  4. The Federalist Papers supported the passage of the U.S. Constitution. Name one of the writers.
  5. Name one U.S. territory.

You probably know some answers. But do these questions reflect the skills required for “informed, responsible participation in public life” described by Utah’s Government & Citizenship course?

The answer is a resounding NO.

A pass-fail “civics” test based on the USCIS question bank is an inherently flawed graduation requirement.

First, the USCIS question bank is invalid as an assessment of civics – these questions require recall of 100 random facts from American History, Government, Geography, and Holidays instead of reflecting the “rights and duties of citizenship” (actual civics) in any meaningful way. At best, they are superficial. It’s a bad test.

Second, this requirement doesn’t align with any Utah Social Studies competencies, so valuable instructional time gets wasted on “test prep.” Students must memorize answers instead of engaging in meaningful learning. 

Third, the administrative burden is ridiculous. Because most information is covered in Utah’s 8th grade US History course (not the Government class), that is when students first attempt the test. For those who miss or fail the test in Junior High, someone has to follow up.

Let me describe the process in my high school: Guidance counselors notify students who have not passed and the Social Studies department chair (that’s me). We figure out who teaches those students each semester, then each teacher has to activate electronic tests and help each student navigate the unwieldy testing platform. For students who need accommodations, teachers let me know so I can coordinate simplified tests with the Special Education department or Language Program Lead for English Language Learner students. Then I coordinate reporting among those teachers, the district, and counselors to ensure the students get credit, assuming they pass the test. And if they don’t pass?  Then there’s the hassle of getting tests reopened by district staff. There are hundreds of these students each year. None of us has time for this.

We’ve bastardized a naturalization test produced by the Federal government to create a graduation requirement that assesses our students’ knowledge of random trivia. It’s asinine.

As Peter Levine, Tufts University, noted in a 2015 Fox News Opinion piece, “Civics is important. Making kids pass the federal citizenship test is a well-intentioned effort to strengthen it. But it is the wrong approach. It implies that citizens should memorize disconnected facts, when what we need is deep knowledge, sincere interest, and true commitment.”

We’re lying to ourselves if we think a state-mandated test will somehow improve civic understanding and engagement for our young people. Dana Mitra, Penn State, and Kristina Brezicha, Georgia State, sharply criticize the Civic Education Initiative’s effort to push states across the nation to administer this test as counterproductive in a 2019 Peabody Journal of Education article. Even the conservative Fordham Institute and local Sutherland Institute acknowledges there is much to be done in this arena. Let’s not be afraid of doing the hard work.

But there is a better way. Let’s direct our Utah State Board of Education to identify best practices to encourage and assess civics within the framework of our Social Studies curriculum. This falls under the purview of the Board of Education. The Legislature should identify this as a priority, require a follow up report, and get out of the way.

In the meantime, let’s eliminate the graduation requirement in the spirit of the 2015 House Resolution calling for a reduced testing burden because “excessive and unnecessary testing in public elementary and secondary schools is counterproductive” and “this situation leads to students spending more time taking tests and less time learning.”

Join me in calling on Legislators to support Rep. Elizabeth Weight’s HB 152 Civic Education Testing Requirements bill.

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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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

Anti-Racism in Education

By Deborah Gatrell

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Photo by Stanley Morales on Pexels.com

This Spring, a student I know reported teammates for blatantly racist behavior. The student wasn’t satisfied with how the issue was handled and elevated it to school administration. When school administrators didn’t discipline the offending students, the issue sparked a social media campaign that pulled no punches. Meanwhile, this student’s car was keyed and egged. Then the whistle-blowing student was suspended for cyberbullying.

In June a 10 year old playing in his grandmother’s yard in West Bountiful was stopped by Woods Cross police searching for fugitives and ordered to the ground, gun drawn.

In both cases, these children were persons of color. The student attended an ethnically diverse school, but was part of what looked to be an all-white team. The 10 year old has a white adoptive mother and was in a largely white community.

In the first example, a teenager took on the social justice warrior role in an effort to correct what seemed an open-and-shut case of racism. The second was just a kid playing in the yard, but he’s now the face of another controversy over white perceptions of racism in Utah.

Newsflash: as the majority in Utah, the white community doesn’t get to decide when their behavior is racist.

To be fair, most people are well-meaning. Utah Jazz player Kyle Korver’s piece acknowledging Utah Jazz fans have a problem is a pointed critique of what might be termed white ignorance. We can’t fix problems we don’t recognize. Gail Miller’s response banning toxic fans was the right thing to do.

 

Make no mistake though, we still have major issues, as found by a Pew research study this spring. A panel of black Utahns shared their experiences after the Korver piece was published in an effort to raise awareness of the issue. I have mixed race family members and relatives. I worry about them because I’ve heard their stories too.

As a white teacher working with diverse populations, my perception of racism has changed with experience. I said and did some stupid things as a new teacher simply because I was ignorant: I know better now, because I’ve listened.

When I first started teaching, I thought I was taking a neutral stance by defending the police who frequently stopped my students when statistics (and student experience) bear out the likelihood of racial profiling. My conversations with students are more thoughtful now. 

Just this year I saw another teacher intervene when a School Resource Officer (SRO) challenged a non-verbal autistic student of color, preventing what would likely have been an ugly escalation. There’s an example of where SROs can do better getting to know Special Needs students.

It’s important for those of us in positions of trust and authority to take time to reflect on these issues. If we don’t recognize a problem, we can’t fix it. Summer is a good time for teachers and SROs to reflect. I hope the incident in West Bountiful will result in some self-reflection for police departments across the state too.

I attended a day of UEA sponsored Anti-racism Training for White Educators about a year ago and came away with a new understanding of how I can make a difference. I’m sharing a few points so you can too.

After acknowledging there is a problem that must be considered, there are four Agreements in the Courageous Conversation About Race protocol, developed by Glenn Singleton of the Pacific Education Group, that must be made in order to productively further conversations on racial equality: stay engaged, experience discomfort, speak your truth, expect and accept non-closure. 

It’s a hard conversation, but we’re dealing with a hard topic, rooted in unpleasant history with generational consequences. This isn’t something that is ‘solved’ in a single training event. But if we don’t engage, we can’t improve ourselves or move our communities forward.

Here are the ten steps presented in Luke Michener and Terry Jess’ Anti-racism training: 

Listen, Learn, Acknowledge, Follow, Space, Accountability, Amplify, Act, Grow, Listen!

We must honestly Listen to understand if we’re going to recognize that the white experience  differs from that of people of color. This isn’t a question of racism, but of perception, and it’s simply unfair to generalize the white experience as normal, because for many of our friends and neighbors, it isn’t. As we learn from others, we’ll face some harsh truths and realities. These facts are borne out by research too.

Once we Acknowledge the validity of different experiences, we can begin to make progress by working together. Making cultural change requires participation by many groups.

Leaders in these change movements should be the ones impacted by current systems and structures. The rest of us can support by Following their lead. They need support from the majority group, but whites should not attempt to take on the “white savior” role

Change is hard and takes time. We’ll make mistakes, but must keep trying.

We need to ensure those most affected by issues have the Space to be heard, especially when their voices have historically been silenced.

In the process of change, Accountability is crucial. We must hold ourselves accountable, and extend the conversation to groups that need to change.

It’s important to Amplify the voices of people in marginalized communities who have different experiences so we can all gain perspective. This isn’t taking over the conversation, it’s lifting the voices of those who know. We can help the cause by elevating them as they speak the truth of their experience.

Once we know, we must Act. Change takes effort. Good intentions aren’t enough.

As we engage in this vital work, we will Grow into better, more compassionate and understanding people. Our friends and students of color need allies to help right the systemic wrongs of the past.

Finally, in this ongoing struggle for true equality and justice for all, let us never forget to Listen again! 

This is not a “one and done” project. We haven’t yet achieved Dr. King’s Dream, but Jackie Robinson was right in saying that our lives have meaning through the impact we have on others. 

Let’s make a positive impact by standing up against racism, especially at school. For more ideas, check out Luke Michener and Terry Jess’ primers on Anti-Racism for White Educators.

Reforming Utah’s Tax Structure: What Educators Should Know and Can Do

By: Deborah Gatrell

Buckle up folks – we’re headed into a wild ride. Your voice in the conversation about how we adjust our tax structure is crucial to ensure sustainable funding for education in Utah. Town Hall meetings discussing tax reform start June 25th and end July 30th. The Utah State Tax Restructuring and Equalization Task Force will make their final recommendation to the Legislature’s leadership in September, so we could see a Special Session to revamp Utah taxes this Fall, significantly impacting Utah education funding. Although the task force committee members want to get this right however long it takes, I’m confident they would rather handle the question of tax reform prior to the 2020 election year.

A separate post covers what was discussed with task force members at the kick-off meeting. There, the committee is introduced, a Legislative Fiscal Analyst describes the current problem, a town hall meeting schedule is presented and a set of guiding principles for the task force is adopted. Here, I share some background on how tax reform has impacted education in the past and suggestions on how you can engage in the discussion to inform the task force effectively.

Background: Impact of Previous Tax Reform on Education

According to an excellent explanation of The Education Tax by the Utah Foundation, published in March 2018, Utah started collecting income tax in 1931, during the Great Depression. Originally, 75% of the income tax was designated to support Utah schools with the remaining 25% going into the General Fund. We designated all income tax to support public education exclusively in 1946.

In 1985, then-lobbyist (now recently retired state senator) Howard Stephenson was instrumental in getting a Truth-in-Taxation law passed. This law required property tax rates to float down, preventing revenue increases automatically tied to increases in property values or inflation unless taxing entities held public hearings to discuss tax ‘increases.’ Intended to encourage responsible and informed taxation, these meetings generated so much hostility that many taxing entities, including school districts across the state instead opted to just their property tax revenues flat for many years, eaten away by inflation in practical terms. According to the UEA position statement on Taxation,

What used to comprise about 25% of public education funding has now been reduced to 16%. The state minimum education tax levy has been cut in half over that time. Most troublesome is the fact that the current system actually forces continued reductions in that state rate and further exacerbates the situation. There is a need to incorporate some type of inflationary adjustment as part of the state rate-setting process. A similar situation exists at the local level with the impact of truth-in-taxation.” (italicization added)

In 1996, Utahns approved a constitutional amendment allowing the dedicated Education Fund (which is 100% of state income tax revenue) to be used to fund higher education. This addressed budget concerns that demands on the General Fund (primarily sales tax) were increasing 20 years ago by shifting a large budget item into Education Funding over time. According the 2018 Utah Foundation report, had that change not occurred, Utah K-12 schools would have had an additional $686 million in 2018. Worse, a separate 2016 Utah Foundation report looking at the combined impact of various tax reform measures including the 2008 flat tax, titled Getting By With Less: Two Decades of K-12 Education Revenue and Spending found that,

Utah’s K-12 education funding effort – or the amount spent per $1,000 personal income – has decreased from 7th highest in the nation to 37th. The decline has resulted in a nearly 29% decrease in tax revenue, which equates to a $1.2 billion reduction of funds available annually for public K-12 education.”

Looking at the shifts in funding ‘effort’ (government spending per $1,000 of personal income), it becomes clear that previous tax reforms have been paid for by Utah’s K-12 schools, as reported by a 2015 Utah Foundation report blog post. While spending on most government services trended up during the 90s and early 2000s, there was a significant jump in Transportation spending in 1996 and higher ed in 2000 while K-12 spending dropped over the long term. Despite the fact that education is the largest share of the state budget, it is clear that the overall trend in K-12 education funding effort has been downward. Other things simply seem to be increasing in importance.

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It took more than 20 years to complete the transition of funding higher education exclusively from sales tax to income tax, and that shift means there is no more flexibility in the General Fund for Legislators to prioritize other needs over education.

While accepted as necessary and appropriate at the time, the 1996 shift including higher education in the Education Fund now seems to encourage some legislators to take money from the income tax for entirely different purposes. The Senate voted late in the 2019 session in favor of a Constitutional Amendment that would allow the income tax to be spent on services for the poor, disabled, and elderly in addition to public education. Education leaders supported the change in 1996 but were outraged by the 2019 proposal, voted on without committee hearings or public input. This proposal was not taken up by the House before the Session ended, but you can be sure it is on the table for discussion by the task force.

Utah remains stuck firmly in last place for per-pupil education spending. Although the governor and most Legislators declare education to be their top priority year after year, increases in education spending by the Legislature barely keep up with inflation. According to a March 2019 CBS report, accounting for inflation, Utah per student funding (a metric that differs slightly from per-pupil spending) is actually 8% lower now than before the Great Recession. The 2019 Voices for Utah Children’s Budget report finds that per student spending fell 1.9% between FY 2017 and FY 2018 and remains 1.3% below the pre-recession peak.

Although the numbers may differ, the trend is consistent: Utah consistently makes minimal investments in education despite the relative importance publicly placed on this budget item. It’s true that Utahns have larger families than the national average, but birth rates and family size are trending down and we still aren’t making up ground in per-pupil spending. While education is a large share of the Utah state budget each year, running about a quarter of the total budget at $5 billion for K-12 alone, the claim that a $1 billion surplus in income tax revenue is a crisis makes one wonder how truly committed legislators are to truly investing in education. For a deeper look at K-12 education spending in Utah, read the Utah Foundation’s February 2018 report titled Simple Arithmetic: K-12 Education Spending in Utah. To get a detailed look on how tax revenue streams have shifted over time, dive into this presentation on The Way We Tax: Utah’s State and Local Tax System from 2015.

Each time taxes have been restructured at the expense of Utah’s school children, Utah’s leaders have promised long-term increases in education revenue would materialize. For example, then-Governor Huntsman and many legislators took great pains to assure educators and parents that economic growth would more than make up the difference in cuts to the Education Fund arising from the switch to a flat tax from 2006-2008. This has not proven to be the case, as found by a 2013 study on the impact of the flat income tax from Voices for Utah’s Children.

In 2014 when Utah Congressional Representative Rob Bishop blamed the high proportion of Federal lands in Utah for preventing the state from adequately funding education, the Center for Western Priorities, a non-partisan group pointed out that Utah consistently cut income (previously discussed) and property taxes AND failed to collect reasonable tax revenue from extractive industries such as oil and gas.

They state, “While North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming all have effective oil and gas tax rates north of 10 percent, Utah’s effective oil and gas tax rate is 3.3 percent. Even nominal tax increases, in line with those assessed by its neighbors, would generate much needed funds for K-12 education in Utah.”

The 2017-18 Our Schools Now initiative, led by business leaders working collaboratively with education leaders to increase education funding was partially successful. The interesting compromise made with the Legislature to put a non-binding opinion question on the 2018 ballot ended the citizen initiative in exchange for about $350 million in additional education funding above funding for growth of the student population at that time. Additional money was promised by Legislators if Utahns supported the gas tax increase, creating more revenue dedicated to the Transportation Fund, which would siphon less money from the General Fund (sales tax), which could then be shifted into additional funding for education. In the end, the vote against a gas tax increase wasn’t even close. Some Legislators have interpreted this to mean Utahns are satisfied with current levels of education funding. My understanding, from multiple conversations and reviewing of comments on supportive Opinion Pieces, suggests that many Utahns voting against the gas tax increase either did not understand how increasing the gasoline tax would translate to more money for education OR they did understand, but did not trust the Legislature to follow through on the promised funding shift in the short and long term given that the General Fund (sales tax) is discretionary – the Legislature can spend General Fund money on whatever it prioritizes, unlike the income tax which is dedicated as the Education Fund.

Now, looking at the ‘structural imbalance’ legislators are concerned about, a key point being made is the fact that some revenue is ‘siloed,’ or restricted use. The income tax, specifically, is dedicated to the Education Fund and cannot be spent on anything else.

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Removing that restriction on the use of the income tax, which is growing at a healthier rate than sales tax revenue, is an idea that already has traction with many legislators. It is one of four possible policy solutions outlined by the Legislative Fiscal Analyst in the kick-off meeting for the Tax Restructuring and Equalization Task Force committee that will be gathering public input at Town Hall meetings across the state from June 25th – July 30th. Read Tax Task Force Kick-off Meeting: The Problem and the Process for more information on how the problem was described and what legislators are doing to put together a tax reform plan.

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Looking at the history of tax reform in Utah and its impact on education funding, it is clear that parents and educators have reason to be concerned about this new tax reform effort. There are areas Utah can increase tax revenue without harming Utah’s school children or removing constitutional protections from the Education Fund. Multiple polls show Utahns consistently support increasing education funding, even if it means tax increases, to make targeted investments that will improve outcomes for Utah students: 2015, 2016, and 2017 serve as relevant examples. Even in 2014, Pignanelii and Webb argued in the Deseret News that Utah’s education funding needs a boost, not a crisis.

We don’t believe “throwing money at the problem” will improve education, but as the Salt Lake Tribune Editorial Board recently observed with their suggestions for tax reform, “Money is to public education as oxygen is to life. Having it does not guarantee success. Not having it guarantees failure.”

In the Deseret News, Jay Evensen asks in his opinion piece “Would any lawmaker, let alone a majority of them, have the guts to propose changing the Utah Constitution so that income taxes could be used for something other than education? Even if they promise to continue giving schools what they need, such a thing might look like a step back from that commitment.”

It’s crucial that educators and concerned citizens understand the pressures spurring calls for tax reform and the history of tax reform’s impact on education so we can engage productively in the policy conversations that will lead to a tax overhaul proposal, likely this year.

Effective Policy Engagement

Effective engagement requires us to communicate effectively with the decision makers – in this case the legislators who are members of the Tax Restructuring and Equalization task force. Coming to the table with solutions that will address mutual concerns is the most powerful approach. Picking a fight is destructive.

From the perspective of Legislators, Utah is fiscally sound because of responsible budgeting. They are in the unenviable position of picking winners and losers every time they make budget choices. It’s a question of simple economics: there are unlimited wants (demands for government services) but only limited supplies, or revenues for meeting those demands.  They’re human and they do the best they can. According to a good number of national rankings, they do a darn good job.

It’s also worth noting that Utah gets an incredible return on the investment that is made in education. Despite our low per-student spending, we get decent results. Whether this is sustainable in the face of changing demographics is another question entirely, but it’s worth celebrating what we do well right now.

At the same time, it’s not enough to simply maintain the status quo by funding growth and barely keeping up with inflation in education. We have a problem with teacher retention, and that turnover has a high cost, both financially and through decreased teacher effectiveness and student learning, with negative cumulative effects, especially in schools with the highest needs.

There is ample evidence that targeted funding in areas with greatest needs produces significant gains that can close achievement gaps. This is of critical importance, and something many Utah Legislators may not understand in light of a 2017 Issue Brief by Utah Legislative Fiscal Analysts on What Drives Student Achievement Across States that found, among other things, that “spending alone does not drive improved academic achievement.” To be fair, the report called for further study to identify which specific inputs produced significant gains, but many Legislators reportedly left the presentation before that nuance was presented. Worse, no teachers were involved in the research project.

To participate effectively, be sure to review the tax reform task force Vision, Purpose, Principles, and Process document. It clearly outlines the steps the task force will take in collecting information and developing a proposal for consideration by the full Legislature, potentially in a Fall special session. Understand their concerns and acknowledge the realities of the problem: slowing sales tax revenue growth means less money to meet increasing needs for most budget items as the population and demands for government services both increase rapidly. The income tax dedicated Education Fund is growing healthily, which makes it an attractive target for restructuring. At the same time, education would definitely benefit from significant funding increases.

Whatever policy suggestions you make should be solutions-oriented and positive. Whatever decisions are made, some people will pay more taxes and others less. The Legislature is committed to a tax cut as part of the restructuring process, which will most likely result from another cut to Utah’s income tax (Education Fund), and many seem interested in removing the constitutional dedication of income tax to the Education Fund. Taking the long view, looking at least 20 years out, how do you think Utah can best invest in education and maintain a strong economy?

Communicate those ideas to members of the Utah State Tax Restructuring and Equalization task force in person at Town Hall events June 25th-July 30th and through email if you can’t make it (or want to follow up). Task force member emails can be found here.  

UEA put out an Issue Brief summarizing tax policy solutions that organization supports on 30 May you can find here if it is helpful to you. Just remember the most powerful message you communicate with Legislators will include your personal story.

Be brief. Be bold. Tell your story. You are the expert on your classroom experience and there is no question that Utah’s commitment to investing in education funding (or the lack thereof) has a direct impact on you. Let’s be sure educators are active participants in the task force discussion on Tax Restructuring and Equalization to ensure we invest adequately in education.

Let’s ensure articulate educators make it to every Town Hall meeting and propose tax reform solutions that will meet Legislators stated goals while increasing and protecting our investment in high quality education for all Utah students. We can broaden the base, reduce some rates, cut taxes (I’m looking at you, food tax), stabilize revenue flows AND protect and invest in funding education for our children who will drive the economy of the future.

Tax Task Force Kick-off Meeting: The Problem and the Process

By: Deborah Gatrell

Utah educators should know how legislators are gathering information to revise Utah’s tax structure because it directly impacts education funding sources. For context, I strongly recommend reviewing what was discussed at the 30 May Tax Restructuring and Equalization Task Force kick off meeting. This summary with explanatory notes will help you understand the ‘crisis’ was the Legislature sees it, and the method they’ve adopted to gather information from the public to inform their tax reform plan.Only by understanding the process can we engage in the conversation effectively. Make no mistake – this will have long term ramifications on state level education funding.

You can find the minutes and links to supporting documents from the kick off meeting here. The official meeting summary, including audio clips, is here. In short, it started with introductions and a brief history of the tax question during the 2019 Legislative Session, then moved on to a description of the problem from Legislative Fiscal Analyst, Jonathan Ball. Next, the task force chairs presented a statement of “Vision, Purpose, Principles and Process” which was amended by Rep. Briscoe before adoption. Finally, the task force chairs outlined dates and locations for Task Force Town Hall meetings where citizens can share their ideas on how to best adjust Utah’s tax structure. The meeting lasted less than an hour.

Membership

The Task Force includes 5 members of the House and 5 members of the Senate who can vote on recommendations to forward to the Legislature. It also includes 4 tax experts as non-voting members. Both parties are represented. There are two women on the task force, one of whom is a voting member: Sen. Karen Mayne (D). A number of teachers, Education Association leaders and teacher-legislators were present in the audience as well. So were a lot of lobbyists.

Short Term Background

This is hardly the first time Utah has taken on questions of tax system overhauls. Sen. Hillyard joked that he’s been on 15 of these task forces (an exaggerated claim made in jest, for effect) during his time in the Senate. The problem came to a head this year when Legislators realized they were shifting ALL higher education spending into the Education Fund during the 2018 Legislative session. I’ll explain why that matters later in the blog post. For now, this shift means there is less flexibility for Legislators to prioritize needs by shifting funds into or away from education using higher education funding as the go-between, funded partly by General Fund (sales tax) and party by Education Fund (income tax).

Rep Quinn proposed HB411 during the session to address this ‘structural imbalance’ by reducing income tax and sales tax across the board while expanding the sales tax ‘base’ by increasing the types of services that are taxed. His goal was to lower rates and expand the tax base to stabilize sales tax revenue over the long term. However, the business community revolted en masse, as did many education leaders. The bill was shelved because there simply wasn’t enough time during the session to address legitimate concerns from stakeholders. Instead, HB3 shifted higher ed funding into the Education Fund using one-time money (in anticipation of structural tax changes) and HB495 established the Tax Restructuring and Equalization Task Force to deal with tax restructuring after the session.

In addition to creating the task force, the final budget held back $75 million in anticipation of a future tax cut and turned a number of on-going funding requests into one-time allocations, potentially creating automatic spending cuts if the problem is not solved. These appropriations decisions were intentional to encourage the Legislature to stay focused on the problem at hand. The task force has four reporting requirements in two phases: The task force will report on findings so far and progress to the Executive Appropriations and Revenue & Taxation committees in July and August. In August and September they will report on findings and make a final recommendation to the same committees. Then, if there is enough consensus, there may be a special session of the Legislature to discuss and vote on a final tax reform package.

The Tax Structure Problem

Jonathan Ball, Legislative Fiscal Analyst, presented an outline of the tax problem. In short, Utah has a ‘modern’ economy and growing population. The modern economy reflects spending shifts from goods (where sales tax is applied) to services (where sales tax is normally NOT applied). Nationally, in the 1930s and 40s between 55-60% of purchases were on goods, producing sales tax revenue for the state. During the 1950s and 60s this proportion started trending downward, drifting below 50% by 1970. By 2017, the breakdown in spending patterns was 66% services and 34% goods in Utah.

Consequently, sales tax revenue growth is slowing while the population continues growing rapidly. A growing population increases demand for government services, so it’s important for tax revenue to ‘keep up’ with population growth. Utah had the fastest growing population in the country from 2010-2018, increasing by 14.4% or about 400,000 people. That’s a lot more students in schools and cars on our roads, more homes in wildfire prone land and increased demands for healthcare. Most of Utah’s state government services are funded through the General Fund (or sales tax). This includes Medicaid (with Federal supplements), air quality improvement efforts, public safety, state parks and recreation, support for children, the disabled, the elderly, the homeless, etc.

As population growth outstrips increases in sales tax revenue, we’re faced with some difficult choices. The Analyst stated “as General Fund growth rate decays, we have less flexibility to manage our budget.” Flexibility in funding State needs is limited because some funding streams are ‘siloed,’ or ‘earmarked’ to pay for specific services. For example, revenue from the gasoline tax can only be used for the Transportation Fund and income tax can only be used for the  Education Fund. General Fund money (sales tax) fills any gaps in Transportation and Education, then pays for everything else too.

funding source

Possible Solutions

From the Analyst perspective, there are four possible solutions: adjust existing tax rates (change the % of sales and/or income charged as tax), modify the tax base (expand taxation to include more services, for example), reduce services and investments (cut government spending), or break down revenue silos (ending Utah’s constitutional mandate requiring that income tax revenue be used solely for the support of public education). Of course these solutions could be combined, and it is understood that the task force will seek public input which may generate other new ideas for addressing the structural imbalance in tax revenues.

possible solutions

The presentation ended with a shoutout to Utah as the #1 state for fiscal stability, according to US News and World Report.  Senator Hillyard commented that Utah is the only state to never lose its AAA bond rating, keeping borrowing costs low. This reflects a commitment by legislators on both sides of the aisle to take the long view, looking at least 20 years out, when making decisions on taxation.

Guiding Principles

The conversation then transitioned to a presentation of a set of guiding principles for the task force, presented by Senator Hillyard. He strongly recommended everyone planning to engage in the conversation about tax reform effectively read and understand the Vision, Purpose, Principles and Process document. Rep. Joel Briscoe (D) recommended an amendment the document to include “analysis of tax structure” included in the line on transparency dealing with revenue collection. This amendment was accepted and the guiding document was adopted.

Town Hall Meetings

Finally, task force committee chairs shared proposed town hall dates and locations. There will be eight of these Town Hall events across the state from June 25th – July 30th. Weeknight Town Halls are planned for 6 pm so folks who work day jobs can attend. Saturday Town Halls will be midday to allow task force members time to travel. Each event will include an Open House for an hour prior so community members can interact with legislators informally. The Town Hall events themselves are intended to be listening tours where stakeholders can offer ideas and suggestions directly to the task force members. They will NOT be debating the merits of various proposals during these events. The task force definitely wants public input because the tax problem isn’t just the Legislature’s problem, “It’s everyone’s problem.”

The proposed Town Hall agenda was approved and the chairs strongly encouraged task force members to make every effort to attend as many Town Hall meetings as possible. Co-chairs are committed to attending all eight events. Venues are subject to change based on availability, but dates and locations are listed here.

Takeaway

It’s important teachers and concerned citizens speak up at these Town Hall meetings to ensure concerns about public education are heard and considered.

You can be sure the business lobbyists are hard at work sharing their ideas with task force committee members. Multiple legislators have already started pushing the idea of eliminating the constitutionally dedicated income tax from the Education Fund. We need to generate and share ideas that will increase General Fund revenues while ensuring that education funding is protected and increased.

Read Reforming Utah’s Tax Structure: What Educators Should Know and Can Do for an in-depth look at how previous tax reform measures have negatively impacted K-12 public education over the long term and how you can effectively engage with legislators.

Lessons In Educational Leadership

By Bridget Varner

Do you have a favorite leader at your school? I have one, it’s the librarian at my school! We lovingly call her Mrs. T because her last name is a tongue twister. Her leadership makes my school a better place. As teachers, we are leaders! First and foremost to our students but also to many colleagues and community members around us.

blur book stack books bookshelves
Photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com

Leadership is such a large part of our job that I was excited to learn more about it. I’m a Utah Teacher Fellow and the Fellows meet once a month. We frequently learn from guest speakers. This year Rob Smith, Assistant Superintendent of Alpine School District, spoke to us. Rob shared what he believes makes impactful educational leaders.

First, Educational Leaders have confident humility. They are all about helping other people. Second, they will take every opportunity to improve. These types of teachers and leaders are always learning and growing. Seeing the importance in continually becoming better. Third, Educational Leaders have to be vulnerable. Fourth, showing gratitude is apart of their character. Rob expressed that gratitude is a state of mind. He shared that writing thank you cards and using #grateful in his posts are some ways he stays grateful. Along with staying grateful educational leaders give away credit to others and sometimes have to be willing to take fire and blame. Fifth, it’s important to look for the good in people. Rob shared that he carries around a coin to remind him that just like a coin people have two sides. The coin is a constant reminder to him to look for the good in people.

monochrome photography of round silver coin
Photo by Joey Kyber on Pexels.com

What he shared helped me understand what made Mrs. T an effective leader and ways I can improve my leadership. Mrs. T shares her vision with staff every year which is to make her library a happy place and it is! She’s always improving it and making it exciting for students. She shares gratitude consistently in emails, guava cupcake treats, and spontaneous hot chocolate days when spring just won’t warm up. She is vulnerable with teachers and lets the library be a place to cry when you need to, laugh about the crazy days, and just talk when needed. She is humble and is kind to everyone.

These types of educational leaders are inspiring and needed! I’m grateful for these two examples. We can use these ideas more in our classrooms and spheres of influence. I believe teachers using these leadership ideas will positively impact their classrooms, schools, and communities.

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