In education, it’s not how much money you spend that matters; it’s how you spend it. At least, that’s what the research shows: Money for public schools is only as good as the framework it funds.
Which is why Utah’s response to a tax hike proposal for education should be this: No taxation without innovation.
We’re talking about real innovation, which is more than new iPads, more than tinkering with old ideas, and certainly more than promises of future district plans proposed by current tax hike advocates. There is nothing innovative about requiring a plan tomorrow while taking more taxes today.
Real innovation creates a transformation — of thought and policy. We need to transform how we think and talk about education: It’s about the student, not “the school” or “the system.” Our policies need to transform from one-size-fits-all approaches designed for administrative ease to taking on the administrative challenge of meeting the unique needs of each student through robust choices and individualized learning opportunities.
Studies have long suggested that the education reform debate ought to go beyond dollars. The famous 700-page Coleman Report, published in 1966 — still one of the most comprehensive studies on the topic — found that in schools “resources contribute very little” to student outcomes. Others have written extensively on this finding, including respected economist Eric Hanushek, who has for decades taken up the banner of “it’s not how much you spend; it’s how you spend it.”
If more money alone is not the answer, then we should be especially wary of the proposed tax hike — a 10.6 percent increase in the current sales tax rate and a 10 percent tax increase in the current income tax rate — that will undoubtedly have far-reaching economic effects.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser has said “raising the income tax rate is the absolute worst thing we could do because that’s a tax on productivity” and can reduce economic activity. House Speaker Greg Hughes has said a healthy economy is what actually generates tax money for public education. Likewise, the sales tax is often viewed as a tax on the poor.
In other words, raising tax rates should be a last resort. Before taking more hard-earned money from working Utah families, we have an obligation to look first toward cost-saving education innovations that create real options for students or move beyond arbitrary barriers like specific attendance hours or days for graduation. We should also consider alternate funding pathways like reducing or eliminating crony capitalist tax breaks or increasing revenues from state public lands or state trust lands, which are dedicated to funding education.
Let’s be clear: Demanding “No taxation without innovation” is not a knee-jerk reaction to a tax hike. It is common sense grounded in the facts established by decades of experience and research in education. Education needs resources, but let’s first find ways to put our current resources to better use and to generate funds without tax hikes. There are certainly innovative ideas worth funding, but “schools need more money” is not one of them — especially when funding it requires a tax hike that would harm hardworking Utahns and burden the state economy.
If a tax hike seeks to fund various shades of the current education delivery method, we should oppose it. We will have no promise of a better-educated generation or improved economic outcomes.
But increased funding for public education, accompanied by genuine innovation, choices and transformation? We should all want to join that conversation.
To get there, Utahns should demand, “No taxation without innovation.”
Christine Cooke, J.D., is education policy analyst for Sutherland Institute.