SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews urged state lawmakers Friday that rather than cutting taxes, they instead make a $2 billion "historic investment" of new money in public education.
Utah's economy has grown to the point there is a $1.3 billion projected surplus and unanticipated revenue growth at a time that the state's public education system must address a worsening teacher shortage, the nation's largest class sizes, and student health and safety issues, she said.
"All signs indicate it is the perfect time to fulfill the promises to our students and make significant investments in their education," Matthews said during a news conference at the state Capitol.
The state's largest teacher union rolled out its budget recommendations, which include funding student enrollment growth and a 6.5 percent increase in the value of the weighted pupil unit — the basic unit of education funding in Utah.
UEA also called for funding programs to enhance the teaching profession, such as an "Educators Rising" initiative that would create a pipeline of future teachers by offering career and technical education courses to high school students and fund a teacher preparation scholarship incentive.
While the association also wants lawmakers to reject proposals to divert public education money to tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, Matthews acknowledged that Utah's system of taxation must be modernized.
"The chronic underfunding of our public schools is a direct result of our flawed tax structure, which is unable to provide sustainable, long-term revenue sources to support a quality education for all Utah students," she said.
Brandon Baca, a junior high social studies teacher in the Weber School District, said he works a second job as a security guard at events. After 18 years of teaching, he and his wife can no longer recommend education as a career to their daughter, which saddens him.
"The demands that are placed on us post-recession are way more than were placed on us pre-recession. When you account for inflation we were paid more. We had more preparation time," he said.
He also worries about the qualifications of some people entering the profession. Earlier in his career, graduates of top colleges applied for teaching openings.
"Recently when we've interviewed, we're interviewing people whose only job is being a bartender at the Olive Garden," Baca said.
"If we're in a period of this excessive growth and prosperity and we've been promised they would grow education with the economy, something has to give."
Asked about the UEA's plea for historic funding, Majority Assistant Whip Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, said lawmakers are managing multiple priorities such as modernizing the state's tax code, expanding Medicaid in a fiscally responsible manner and supporting education.
"Education is a top priority. I don't think if you talked to any legislator, they wouldn't say education is a top priority," Millner said during the Senate's daily briefing with reporters.
Millner said she believes lawmakers will make a "significant investment" in education.
"Now how much is enough is always in the eyes of the beholder. Different people have different views of that, but I know there is a commitment to fund education during this session and to make sure it's a very high priority in our budgeting process," she said.
Majority Leader Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, noted "The last four years we've put $1.2 billion of new money into public education. We'll continue to follow that pattern."
Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, added "Last year was a record."
Barbara Antonetti, an elementary school teacher in the Granite School District, said working — and learning — conditions are far from optimal and she hopes lawmakers will do far more this year to invest in Utah's public schools.
"I think we need it. We deserve it. The kids deserve it. My class suffers because we don't have enough funding for certified teachers. We don't have enough paraprofessionals. I teach fourth grade, so I'm supposed to meet the needs of every learner in my classroom all by myself and up until recently, I had 27 kids in my class," she said.20 comments on this story
A friend who is also an elementary school teacher has 32 first-graders in her afternoon classroom by herself, "which is just crowd control, right?"
The shortage of certified special education teachers is particularly acute, she said.
"We have 1 1/2 special ed teachers for our building. The half-time special ed teacher position, we've had six teachers in three years and I think one or two of them have been certified teachers. So the other special education teacher is picking up the slack on all the documentation," Antonetti said.