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Among the priorities for legislative leaders this session has been to find a way to eliminate the threat of the proposed Our Schools Now petition drive, which aims to put an initiative before voters, asking for tax increases that would add about $700 million annually to public school coffers.

One way or another, Utahns may get a chance to vote on added school funding in November. Before that happens, however, they need answers to some questions.

Chief among these is, what would the extra money accomplish?

  • Would it be allocated equally to school districts whose elected boards would decide what to do? Or would it be earmarked to target the most pressing needs of the state’s public school system?
  • Would the money help English-language programs, low-income student needs or teacher salaries?
  • Would it help districts whose property tax bases are insufficient to provide the level of funding available to high-income districts?

A separate measure under legislative consideration would, if it receives two-thirds support of lawmakers, ask voters to change the state Constitution to abolish the state school board and put the governor in charge of appointing a superintendent to manage schools. The essence of that controversial proposal is to define who sets the vision for education in Utah, which has a lot to do with the school-funding dilemma.

Simply adding more money to school budgets would illustrate the weakness of a system in which no one is accountable for a vision.

Among the priorities for legislative leaders this session has been to find a way to eliminate the threat of the proposed Our Schools Now petition drive, which aims to put an initiative before voters, asking for tax increases that would add about $700 million annually to public school coffers. Earlier this week, the backers of that petition apparently indicated a willingness to abandon the initiative in favor of a compromise that potentially would provide less than half that amount.

One publicized proposal would freeze the basic property tax levy, which is dedicated to schools, at its current 15 percent rate. This effectively would increase taxes on Utah homeowners by a combined $200 million or so, depending on inflation in the real estate market.

The second part of that proposal would place a non-binding measure on ballots, asking voters whether they would support a 10-cent per gallon increase in the gas tax, which would free up an estimated $140 million to schools. This would allow the state to shift much of its transportation funding from the general fund to gas taxes.

This is a plan fraught with risks for education. Voters may become confused as to how being asked to hike gas taxes — typically defined as user fees for highway construction and maintenance — is related to helping schools. The non-binding nature of the vote means lawmakers could decide to reject the increase regardless of what voters say.

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It also raises another question. The combination of fuel-efficiencies and alternatives to traditional gas, such as electricity, natural gas or hybrids, has made gas taxes inefficient. Would schools benefit long-term from a gas-tax increase?

Clearly, lawmakers are reluctant to confront added school funding directly through the income tax. This is understandable, given that the tax is a drain on productivity and tends to be a key factor in attracting economic development.

It might be easier, however, if education were guided by a clear vision that could identify specific targets for added funding, along with specific anticipated outcomes.

That would make things easier on Utah voters this fall, as well.