Here’s how Utah can really level the educational playing field

This post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations.

Photo by Anissa Thompson

Photo by Anissa Thompson

Ten years ago, Sutherland Institute published a powerful analysis of public education in Utah called Saving Education and Ourselves: The Moral Case for Self-Reliance in Education. Our argument is easy to understand: Able families should receive encouragement to become self-reliant in education, and families unable to be self-reliant in education are welcomed into the public school system.

Admittedly, this education policy model is quite different than what we now have in Utah. Our current system is a top-down, bureaucratic model that assumes that children belong to the state, not parents; public education is the center of democracy, not the family; and only “experts” trained to educate children know what they’re doing.

State law, both in our constitution and by statute, is double-minded about what model to use. The constitution doesn’t trump state statutes in this case because the state Legislature has ultimate control over education funding.

Typically, you have two types of education bills at the Legislature each year – one type serving the education establishment and public school system and another type serving parents and children. A good example of what I mean is the attempt by the education establishment to repeal tax exemptions for dependents. The establishment complains that large families don’t pay their fair share into public education and one way to even the playing field is to get rid of dependent exemptions in the tax code.

Of course, that’s a pretty myopic view of both Utah families and funding for public education. For instance, the same education establishment utters nary a peep about poor families that pay absolutely nothing into the system.

Ten years ago, Sutherland Institute created a better, more equitable way to fund public education in Utah. But to get there, we have to face some realities.

First, everyone pays something into public education. Everyone benefits from educated children. Second, not everyone has school-age children. Many people don’t have children at all or no longer have children in the home. Third, some Utah families don’t use the public school system and yet are “double taxed” for education – paying to educate their own kids and, through income taxes, also paying for public schools. And, fourth, there are many large families that could be self-reliant in education but choose to burden the public school system instead.

Sutherland’s plan would repeal all state income tax deductions, exemptions and credits and, in their place, substitute a two-tier income tax system that recognizes current realities. Ten years ago, we recommended a lower income tax tier of 1 percent for all families with adjusted gross income less that $25,000. This covers the poor and meets the ideal that everyone should pay something. The next tax tier is 3 percent for self-reliant families and households without school age children. This covers people who don’t currently utilize the public school system.

In the upper tier is a 7 percent tax rate for families using public schools with adjusted gross incomes over $25,000 and a 9 percent tax rate for dependent families with adjusted gross incomes over $75,000.

In other words, it’s not enough for the education establishment to seek fairness just for some Utahns. If they were serious about true equity, they would cut an even playing field for everyone.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.

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