Another year, another proposal to increase taxes — and this time, it’s a group called Our Schools Now asking Utahns to raise their taxes to the tune of $700 million. The initiative proposal seems simple enough: let’s give more money to teachers and their classrooms. And like a doctor to a child receiving a shot, they say “it’ll only hurt a little bit.”
But if we were to get into the nitty gritty details of the initiative, is this claim true? What does this initiative actually do and how will it affect your family?
First, the initiative seeks to raise $700 million in tax revenue by increasing the income and sales tax rates. These increases may seem harmless, and Our Schools Now describes them as a “.5 percent” and “.45 percent” increase. But the reality is that the effective tax increase will be closer to 15 percent for the average Utah family, relative to what we currently pay.
This leads to the first problem. If you are currently paying income taxes, the poorer you are, the harder you are going to get hit by these tax increases. Only the wealthy will pay the supposed 10 percent income tax increase that Our Schools Now is promoting. Because of deductions, the less you make, the higher that percentage climbs.
Perhaps you’re OK with raising taxes disproportionately on the poor. After all, $700 million for education sounds like it will make a big impact. But where will the money go? Proponents of the tax increase claim that it will go straight to the classroom to pay for innovative new programs and higher salaries for teachers. Are they correct?
Actually, no. The initiative doesn’t guarantee either of these things. Our Schools Now’s initiative guarantees a grand total of $0 will go to paying teachers more. Instead, the proposal caps how much of the new money school districts can use to pay teachers at no more than 25 percent. This cap increases to 40 percent in a few districts, creating an uneven playing field.
So if the money won’t go to the teachers, then where else will it be spent?
The initiative states that funds may be used for any purpose “reasonably designed to improve student performance that is approved by the local board.” If you are not sure what that means, then, don’t worry, you aren’t supposed to. This is language designed to allow for financial tricks to be played with these new funds — and it's likely that a good portion of the funds will never see the classroom, especially since this has happened numerous times in the past when the Legislature has given large amounts of new money to the school system.
Some might argue that this type of language provides for “local control,” but again Our Schools Now has something to say about that. To qualify to receive money under the initiative, schools must submit “Teacher and Student Success Plans” to the local school board. These plans can be used against the school to give complete control of the new funds from this initiative to the local school board should the school not improve enough. School grading, which many teachers detest, is the primary criteria used to determine if schools lose control of the money.
Now perhaps this would be worth it in order to solve all of Utah’s supposed issues with education performance — $700 million seems like a small sacrifice for Utahns to make. The problem is that lobbyists line the halls of the Capitol every year asking for more education funding, and no matter how much taxpayers give, it will never be enough.
Just remember what the campaign manager for Our Schools Now has said publicly: "Even $750 million isn’t enough to solve the problems that we're in.” This proposed tax increase is only the beginning, as the education establishment, business elites and government bureaucracy continue knocking at your door to take more of your hard-earned money.
So no, this tax increase is not just going to “hurt a little bit” — it will severely hurt many Utahns trying to live on fixed or low incomes. And all of that pain for what? Hardly any guarantee that the funds will reach teachers and students. Instead the funds will likely be heavily absorbed by the bureaucracy while reducing local control. This initiative will fail to satisfy the constant demand by the school system for more money.
Utahns have suffered through half a dozen other tax increases in the last few years. It’s time to put Utah’s over $15 billion budget in order and stop increasing taxes at every turn.
As government schools continue to cling to the 19th-century teaching model and resist accountability for past tax increases, it is unwise to let this system absorb more of our money. Utah taxpayers should be extremely skeptical of Our Schools Now.
Michael Melendez is director of policy at Libertas Institute.