Utah leads the nation in a number of economic measures and quality of life. But the one area where we don’t excel, where we struggle, is the one that matters the most — the education of our young people.
As I look at my four grandchildren — ages 10, 7, 3 and 3 — and as I am aware of the direct correlation between a good education and earning a livable wage, I am concerned about their future, and the future of all of Utah’s young people. We won’t have the nation’s best economy for long — or best quality of life — if we provide only average education compared with other states and much worse than average compared with other developed nations.
For the first time ever, the current generation of young people will not be as well-educated as their parents. Young women are not graduating from college in the same numbers as in other states (and hence USA Today labeled Utah as one of the worst states for women). And a recent Dan Jones & Associates poll showed that public education is not preparing our students for higher education; and higher education is not preparing graduates with the skills needed in the workforce. We are not on track to achieve Gov. Gary Herbert’s important goal of 66 percent of the workforce having a post-high school certificate or degree by 2020.
In a state where families and children are valued so highly, where a growing workforce could be a key competitive advantage instead of a burden, it makes no sense that Utah doesn’t have the best education system in the country — and we should shoot for the best education in the world.
Despite our governor and Legislature devoting nearly all surplus money to education over the last number of years, our funding effort for public education has slipped significantly. We spend less per pupil than any state in the nation, and our funding effort — the percentage of overall tax revenues dedicated to education — has declined from among the highest in the country to below average.
A number of years ago, we were considered a high-tax state and we accepted that status because we had more children to educate, on a percentage basis, than any state in the country. Today, we are among the lower-taxed states, despite having the same high burden of education funding needs.
We have repeatedly cut taxes that fund education and other areas of state government. We have cut the sales tax and the income tax. We have allowed the gas tax to lose 40 percent of its purchasing power, so it can no longer fund an excellent transportation system, forcing our leaders to shift more and more general fund money to transportation.
A steady diet of tax cuts means our schools produce students not ready for the workforce, and our infrastructure doesn’t keep up with population growth.
Our economic development experts tell us Utah’s mediocre education results are already a problem in attracting businesses. Businesses want low taxes, but they even more want excellent education and good infrastructure. Many of the most vibrant economic regions in America, where great businesses grow and thrive, and where children receive excellent education, have much higher taxes than we do, and spend much more on education.
It is not popular to advocate for a tax increase, but we need one. It’s time to speak out. To make a real difference, it’s not enough to simply use surplus money that goes up and down, depending on the year. We need additional dedicated, ongoing revenue so that we don’t fall further behind as a state, and so that college tuition doesn’t put higher education out of reach of our young people.
A number of good tax options exist. We could restore the sales tax on food (and provide a credit or rebate for low-income people), or raise the income tax by 1 percent, as has been proposed by Rep. Jack Draxler. We can raise and index the fuel tax, allowing us to reduce the sales tax earmark for transportation and use that money for higher education.
More money, of course, is not the entire answer. More funding must be accompanied by meaningful reform and system improvement. Excellent reform measures that will truly make a difference have been proposed by Education First and Prosperity 2020.
While I don’t like tax increases, we must do what is right to ensure that our economy stays strong and our children’s futures remain bright. I encourage the Utah Taxpayers Association, whose board is comprised of business leaders, to lead the effort to raise taxes for education. I encourage the Legislature in its 2015 session to fund and reform education in meaningful ways. I encourage Utah voters to hold their elected officials accountable for education results.
A. Scott Anderson is CEO and president of Zions Bank.