Utah’s Chance to Improve Public Education

August 20, 2018 – Salt Lake City, Utah

This effort is Utah’s chance to improve public education

I’ve long been convinced that improving public schools is the best way to prepare our young people for great jobs, especially as advanced technology penetrates every sector of society. I believe investing in education excellence is critically important to our families and to our economy.

So when I was invited to participate in the effort led by Our Schools Now to increase education funding, I gladly accepted, along with co-chairs Gail Miller, the owner of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies, and Ron Jibson, retired chair and CEO of Questar.

In coming years, severe shortages of qualified employees are forecast. Even today, many businesses can’t find the workers they need. States with a highly educated, capable workforce will flourish, while other states will languish.

Many of the best jobs will not require four-year degrees. But they will require advanced training. And they will require competency in education basics, both soft skills and hard skills. Low-wage jobs that require no specialized skills are rapidly being automated. And those that remain won’t support a family.

Less than 50 percent of Utah students are currently proficient in key subjects. That’s not good enough to prepare the workforce of the future. Especially at risk are students who don’t have strong family support or are otherwise disadvantaged.

A recent in-depth survey conducted by Cicero Group/Dan Jones & Associates shows that Utah voters understand the critical importance of education, and they also support more investment to educate our young people.

The survey, conducted June 4-14 using a sample of 844 likely voters (3.4 percent possible margin of error), showed voters view education, by far, as the most important issue facing Utah; it is viewed as twice as important as the second most important issue. Some 77 percent of voters believe Utah is underfunding education compared to other states. Utah currently spends the least per pupil of any state in the country.

Our Schools Now proposes to increase school funding by $101 million annually, or $150 per student, and the funding would be invested directly in local schools to improve student achievement. K-12 education would receive an additional $3,400 per classroom, on average, and the money could be used to increase teacher salaries, reduce class sizes and increase the number of teachers and aides. The survey shows that is precisely how Utah voters want to use increased education funding.

The proposal uses an innovative mechanism to get more money into Utah classrooms. Currently, Utah spends hundreds of millions of dollars of general fund money to build and maintain state roads and highways. If the fuel tax is increased by 10 cents per gallon (costing the average driver $48 more per year), then more of transportation needs would be funded by highway users, and some $101 million of general fund money would be freed up to be used for education.

The Legislature has placed a non-binding proposal on the November ballot to raise the fuel tax. Voting in favor of this proposal is the most important thing Utah citizens can do to improve public education in the Beehive State.

CNBC this month issued its annual rankings of the best states for business. Utah comes in at No. 3 — an excellent ranking. However, in education, Utah was tied for 34th, earning only a D+. More than 30 states ranked higher than Utah.

I firmly believe our young students are just as smart, our teachers are just as qualified, and our parents are just as dedicated as students, teachers and parents are in higher-performing states. So what’s the difference? The difference is that top education states invest dramatically more funding in things that prepare young people for the future.

Utah needs this additional funding. It will make a big difference.